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School for Wives, White Bear Theatre

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin
Translated by Neil Bartlett
Directed by Jenny Eastop

★★★★

Pros: A wonderfully entertaining and witty adaptation of Moliere’s famous play. Tom Barratt’s indefatigable performance is not to be missed.

Cons: Too few to mention.

Our Verdict: A simply wonderful version of a classic French farce. Nothing is lost in translation in this production. 80 minutes of pure entertainment.

Courtesy of Mercurius Theatre Company
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by his stage name Moliere) was a master of comedy in 17th Century France. His play, School for Wives, was first performed for French royalty at the Palais Royal Theatre in 1662. An impressive provenance indeed but this did not seem to intimidate the more recently formed Mercurius Theatre Company.

School for Wives is a typical farce. It is set in one location – a courtyard of a modest French house. We discover the house belongs to a middle-aged local town Councillor called Arnold, played by Tom Barratt. The stage at the White Bear Theatre is small but the intimate setting is very much to the audience’s advantage. You find yourself positioned in the midst of the action and the acoustics are incredible for such a no-frills venue.

Arnold, who is the main protagonist, wears an ill-fitting 1970’s brown suit and thick-rimmed glasses. We soon discover Arnold is intimidated by femininity and has created his “perfect” wife by paying for Agnes (played by Alexandra Ryall) to be educated from age 4, with her final years spent in a nunnery. She is now 17 and Arnold is ready to marry her, having produced a woman of simple mind – unchallenging and obedient (or so he believes.)

As you would expect in a farce, not everything goes to plan and soon Arnold fears he is going to lose Agnes to the young “Hooray” Horace. Horace is a well-dressed, good-looking, public school educated suitor. It is love at first sight and even though he is lacking in the brain department, he is well suited to the hapless Agnes, who is being kept a prisoner in Arnold’s house.

The 80 minute play is fast-paced and full of deception, disguises and just the right amount of slapstick. This is mainly provided by Arnold’s two servants, splendidly played by Beth Eyre and Elliot Hardy. The play is also interspersed with cheesy 1980’s pop songs, which work surprisingly well considering the origins of the play. Most of the time the songs are used to signal the end of the act, but they are also used to great effect in a slow-motion dance between Agnes and Horace.

All the actors are magnificent but Tom Barratt’s performance just pips them all by half a length. It is perhaps one of the strongest and most faultless performances I have seen either on, or off, the West End this year. The other cast members seem to feed off his energy.

A farce, by its very nature, is predictable, but this version of School for Wives is still hugely entertaining. You can’t help but be carried along with Arnold, Horace and company. I urge you to experience the madness while you can.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

School for Wives at The White Bear Theatre runs until 23rd March 2013. Box Office: 0207 793 9193 or book online at http://www.ticketsource.co.uk.

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