Pros: Very funny, great ensemble work, playful in its use of multilingual delivery.
Cons: Loud music occasionally masks the dialogue.
I would have enjoyed Exchange Theatre’s spirited production of Le Médecin Malgré Lui on any day of the year. But it was particularly delightful, on the day the UK voted to leave the EU, to be treated to a French play in London, performed in a mixture of French and English by a winning multicultural and multilingual cast.
This is a play whose political incorrectness is more than a match for The Taming of the Shrew. Sganarelle is a philandering drunk who beats his wife. She exacts her revenge, but in doing so facilitates his elevation in the world. It is a play which questions, but ultimately accepts a rotten patriarchal system, and whilst Exchange Theatre have clearly tried to soften the edges of Molière’s comedy, there is still plenty here to offend delicate 21st century sensibilities. Not least the fact that David Furlong’s Sganarelle is inappropriately adorable. He is as harmlessly lascivious as Sid James in a Carry On film, as charmingly unscrupulous as Lovejoy. Yes, he beats his wife with a bust of Molière, yes he ogles and gropes the nurse’s breasts, and yes he thinks it’s great to ‘be a doctor’, because you get paid whatever the outcome. But in the absence of a fourth wall, Furlong’s Sganarelle engages the audience with mischievous looks and conspiratorial asides, and has us rooting for him against our better judgement.
Exchange Theatre have given the play a modern setting, with the help of a clever set, some great costumes and plenty of loud pop. The set is a curtained frame that very effectively conjures up three totally different settings. First it’s a shabby flat, littered with baby bottles and books, then it becomes Sganarelle’s workshop and finally, with the addition of a window, the elegant home of Géronte and Lucinde.
Géronte in this version is Lucinde’s mother, not her father, and is played by Yanouchka Wenger Sabbatini as a monied, highly strung grande dame whose determination to marry her daughter to a rich man is equalled only by her taste for self-medication. Lucas and Valère are the mismatched heavies so beloved of Hollywood. Valère the brains of the operation, somewhat sinister in black suit and leather gloves, Lucas the meathead thug played here as an English-speaking yokel. The show is played in English and French on alternate days, so I assume (or hope?) that Lucas becomes a Francophone yokel on the English days. Leo Elso, who plays Valère and doubles as Léandre, is a tall, lanky chap. So it is a stroke of costuming genius that his disguise, when he masquerades as the apothecary, is an ultra-short naughty nurse outfit with mega-wedges.
The pace is nicely varied. When Sganarelle and Martine are spitting venom at each other (surely better in French than in English), and during the farcical passages it’s all rapid-fire delivery and high energy. But there are also moments when the production slows right down, when Lucinde contemplates her veil in silence, her face registering sadness, disgust and mutiny or when Lucas dresses Sganarelle as a doctor, presenting each accessory with elaborate ceremony.
The ending comes rather abruptly, and takes the form of a wild party to which the audience is also invited. We are celebrating the engagement of Lucinde to her one true love, Léandre, (only because he’s just come into money), as well as the reconciliation of Sganarelle and Martine (just after he’s finished bonking the nurse!) It’s a great party, but moral compasses are best left at the door.
Director: David Furlong
Producer: Exchange Theatre
Booking until: 13th July 2016
Box office: 020 7835 2301
Booking link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/exchangetheatre