Shaw Festival Review Series: FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS
YA novelist, Hermine Steinberg, reviews Terrence Rattigan's 'French Without Tears' at the Shaw Festival.
French Without Tears is a light romantic comedy that was written by Terence Rattigan in 1936. It is largely based on his own life and was so well received in it’s time that it brought him almost instantaneous fame and fortune. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour when drawing room farces were abandoned for serious dramas reflecting social concerns of the post-World War 2 era. However, this flight of fancy, which explores the lives of young men thrown together to learn French (French Without Tears was the name of a popular French primer) in order to prepare for their “diplomatics” is not very different from many modern comedies. That may be because the themes of friendship, lust, and ambition are universal.
Rattigan wrote French Without Tears when he was twenty five. Just as the play’s protagonist, Alan Howard, he was struggling to assert his independence from an overbearing father who expected his son to go into the diplomatic service. His father insisted he spent his summers at a French “crammer” (intensive immersion school) which later became the setting for his play. Like Alan, Rattigan dreamt of a writing career which he ultimately chose to pursue . The play is definitely a young man’s perspective of love, life, and the captivating power of a woman able to use her obvious charms.
The young aspiring diplomats living in the villa of their French teacher have varying levels of interest in becoming fluent in French and experience various degrees of success. However, their real focus becomes the pursuit of women and adventure. If you think the plot is beginning to sound like thousands of other adolescent or 20-something summer romance comedies, you are right. And if you approach it from that perspective, you will be able to thoroughly enjoy this play as what it was intended– a frothy farce that, in fact, was first titled Joie de Vivre. There are some undercurrents or allusions made to the world outside this enchanted cottage. Indirect philosophical discussions about the morality of war and references to Hitler sometimes jolt the audience to the realization that these young people are worried about enjoying the status and privilege of becoming foreign diplomats in the same year Hitler marched into the Rhineland defying the Treaty of Versailles and a wave of strikes and factory occupations swept through France, bringing political instability and fear to the already poverty stricken French people. Its difficult to see any evidence of it, but the play does take place in the midst of the Depression. However, any of the more serious discussions fade into the background as characters focus on drinking, romance, and partying.
French Without Tears is definitely an ensemble piece that largely depends on the cast being able to establish chemistry between their characters and convince the audience to suspend their reason long enough to enjoy the flat out farcical nature of the play. This cast successfully performed their roles with total conviction. The woman at the center of these young men’s frustration is Diane Lake. In her own words she is “not clever, not nice and can’t talk intelligently.” Her god-given talent seems to be to make men fall in love with her – as many as possible. Robin Evan Willis plays this predatory female with great finesse. To her “Veronica”, the role of “Betty” in the character of Jacqueline Maingot is recreated by Julie Martell who also plays the sexy starlet in Ragtime. Her characterization is understated; sometimes too much so. Michael Ball brings the grouchy Monsieur Maingot to life with the deft precision of the master he is. But what makes French Without Tears actually worth seeing is the trio of Ben Sanders as the Honourable Alan Howard, Martin Happer in the role of the Lieutenant-Commander Rogers, and Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Kit Neilan. The three men who form a bond to protect themselves from the onslaught of Diana’s powerful allure exhibit wonderful chemistry with each other. Their comic timing is impeccable.
French Without Tears is for the light-hearted. It is not the type of play you will leave the theater and be eager to go to a coffee house or bar to discuss. It will leave a smile on your face and cause you to think back to some of those long summer evenings in foreign places when romance was in the air and behaving foolishly was part of the adventure of life. That, in itself, is worth the price of admission.
Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. Hermine will be at the Niagara Literary Arts Festival at “A Book Affair” Saturday, June 9th (12-5 p.m.) at the Niagara Falls Public Library on Victoria Ave in Niagara Falls and will be reading from her novel on June 10th at 2 p.m. at the Fine Grind Cafe on James St in St. Catharines. For more information, please visit www.cowalkers.com.