Robert Thomas’s comic thriller Huit Femmes, the play on which Francois Ozon’s film of 2002 was based, is being staged in a new translation by Borealis Theatre, a company with the laudable aim of presenting lesser known European plays to British audiences.
The plot is a relatively simple one: the eight titular women are all guests or residents at a snowed in country house where a murder has taken place: the man of the house has been discovered with a knife in him and, of course, as the play progresses, we discover that every one of them has a motive to want him dead.
Having never seen neither the original play nor Ozon’s film, I went into Donald Sturrock’s translation with no pre-conceptions. I can’t say how it compares to either of its predecessors, but its new incarnation came across as very much Almodovar meets Agatha Christie, a sort of Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown in the Vicarage – only without the warm heart and high camp of the former or the cleverly maintained tension of the latter.
The production is played more for laughs than thrills, though there is not enough of either: not having encountered the victim means that you’re never particularly engaged in finding out who killed him, as he is simply a dead body behind a locked door, and while the bickering of the women as the revelations start to spill is sporadically amusing, it’s never quite funny enough. Naming the two sisters at the heart of the play Goneril and Regan may be suggestive of some weighty backstory, but this is not really delivered, and the denouement isn’t particularly shocking or especially believable. Updating the play – it is now set in 1980 rather than 1960 – is an odd choice: it isn’t recent enough to seem contemporary, but it makes the characters’ attitudes seem oddly dated (would anyone be that shocked at an unwed mother in the 80s?), as well as making the house’s domestic arrangements, with its housekeeper and maid, seem anachronistic.
The performances are fine, if occasionally overly arch and a little too mannered: Sasha Waddell’s hypochondriac Regan gets some great lines and plenty of laughs, and Bernice Stegers’ Goneril is suitably sharp as the dead man’s wife. As the youngest daughter Catherine, Sophie Kennedy Clark starts the play inexplicably saddled with American mannerisms, which makes her irritating more than anything else, while Clara Andersson’s exotic Zinka reminded me so much of Florence Welch – all over-styled flame hair and fitted jumpsuit – that I half expected her to burst into song, and was slightly disappointed when she didn’t. As the daughter turned detective trying to get to the bottom of the murder, Kate Ward is authoritative, though her own secret, when it comes, lacks conviction. Tamara Hincho is suitably curmudgeonly as the wheelchair-bound old lady of the manor, while Alice Anthony and Maxine Howard are good value as the spiky young maid and faithful-or-is-she old domestic. But director Elgiva Field never seems to get a grip on either the pace or tone of the performances, so the whole thing feels rather hollow.
The design, by Anna Bliss Scully, is also problematic: it looks great, but if you’re going, it’s advisable to get there early and get a seat centre stage. The long, narrow ‘railway car’ style staging means that if you sit at one end (as I was) it’s difficult to see what’s going on at the other; and chunks of the story takes place in the central aisle of the audience seating, so it can be muffled and hard to make out what’s going unless you’re sitting close to the action. This design flaw rather sums up the play itself: decent enough, but insufficiently thought through. Some plays, perhaps, are best left unrevived.