Harpagon isn’t so big on sharing. For this titular miser, a couple’s big day is best served on a small budget, and “the more the merrier” is a phrase better attributed to the number of couples to be paired-off in one cost-efficient swoop, than to the number of guests there to witness it. If Harpagon can serve up one budget meal to the guests from two official unions in one night, he’s doing okay; if he can split four pots of offal soup between the guests from three weddings, then he’s really onto a winner.
But as we gather here today to witness and celebrate the unions of Cleante and Marianne, Élise and Valère, in holy matrimony, Director Sean Foley ensures that the assembled congregation are thoroughly immersed in the spirit of the party – especially those seated in the front row. At various points throughout the evening, a cuddly rat, autumnal leaves, torn paper, a bright pink handbag, water, half a bottle of wine, one butler and a barrage of insults are all thrown into the audience. Poking fun at West End ticket prices, and those fools who pay them, Lee Mack’s Maître Jacques distributes uniformly cheap digs to those on both sides of the theatre ticket hierarchy, from those in the stalls – who probably had to take out a second mortgage to afford the ticket – to those on the balcony: “You don’t even have a house, do you?”
True to Molière’s 1668 script, there’s an abundance of audience interaction, with characters regularly breaking out into asides. Wearing an outfit cut, frugally, from a pair of curtains, Mack leads this permeability, flitting between interactions with audience and other characters, as easily as he switches between his six distinct jobs within the miser’s stripped back domestic staff. “I’ve got more roles than an underpaid understudy in a West End revival,” he sighs, the comparison serving as a showy bridge between his awareness of content and of context.
There’s a true knowingness to Mack’s role, the metafictionality working to harness-in and elevate all of the silliness that surrounds him. He’s funny in clowning, as he traps his fingers in the harpsichord lid or buffoons across the stage with buttocks on show. He’s amusing, too, as he so eagerly toys with our expectations of theatre, taking a match to a row of candles before sighing and letting the lighting operator spark up the rest, or bangs down on the harpsichord, ragged locks flying dramatically, with no interest in looking like he’s playing live. At one point, he hurriedly collects props from the front row. It’s industry night, he reminds us, so they haven’t sold enough tickets to justify giving scraps away for free.
Foley and Phil Porter’s “free” adaptation really hits the contemporary spot, providing two comedic vehicles – arrogant anachronism and fantastique Franglais – that are as valuable to the production’s sense of humour, as gold is to the miser. Slapstick is one thing, but what’s a little pain without a Gallic-influenced curse? Shia LaBeouf! Matt LeBlanc! Pret A Manger! In a later scene, Mack’s Jacques, armed only with a baguette, fences with Matthew Horne’s Valère. Touché is met with crème brûlée, parry lunge meets vanilla sponge, and rapier encounters an eclair. The result is très bonbons!
Porter and Foley’s culture-clashing adaptation wears its anachronism proudly. A reference to “having it up the Arc de Triomphe” is served with a generous pinch of salt – after all, the monument wasn’t to be built for another 150 years. Similarly, a mention of one of the most unscrupulous sports retailers of our day – “Le Sports Direct” – is delivered with a time-wise aside to the audience: “Don’t you look at me like that. For the times we live, I am a model employer.”
Bowing contests ridicule the grovelling manners of yesteryear and a makeup palette with more pinks and whites than a jumbo bag of marshmallows mocks historic beauty trends. Alice Power’s costume design observes how seventeenth century European fashions have been reappropriated in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, and filters this contemporary flair and colour back into this revival. Flouncing around stage in a huge wig, frilly pink pantaloons and a butter-wouldn’t melt smile, Ryan Gage’s Cléante is more stylistically indebted to a Japanese pop superstar (see: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), than such contemporaries as Louis XIV.
Turning the blade of the show’s wit to the present day, Mack borrows expressions from reality TV – “Previously. On. The Miser.” – to spoonfeed those viewers who presumably can’t get through a twenty minute interval without losing track of the plot. Looking out hungrily to the press night audience, the comedian anticipates a five star review from Michael Billington; later, he uses a pair of stained trousers to rudely demonstrate his cynicism towards the trickle-down effect – another anachronism, for this Economics model wasn’t identified until the end of the nineteenth century. Attention turns to the immoral practices of loan sharks but, with one more knowing bite at London’s theatre scene, Gage abruptly stops the jokes. “That’s enough social commentary, we’re not in the Royal Court”.
In colliding the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, Foley and Porter have doubled their access to comedic material, cultivating a script that brings a return on investment that is more uplifting than the miser’s calculating interest rates and Power’s extreme under-wiring combined. Molière’s satire has been kicking around for 349 years and, in this contemporary adaptation, this tale of scrimping and saving has certainly paid its dividends.
The Miser is on at the Garrick until 3rd June 2017. Click here for more details.