There’s a lot of really, really excellent hair on display in Paul Miller’s production of French Without Tears, a play which was, in its day, Terence Rattigan’s most successful: sculpted and sleek as an otter’s back, not a lock out of place. It’s a kind of costuming, of course, and this is a play much concerned with the donning of costumes. In the way they dress and present themselves, Rattigan’s characters are marked out as men even while they behave like schoolboys, a disjunction which is the source of much of the play’s comedy. For the play’s two female characters on the other hand, hair is one of their weapons, or at least has the potential to be used as such if they are so minded.
Set in mid-’30s, at a French language crammer school for Brits with an eye on joining ‘the Diplomatic,’ it focusses on the exploits of a group of young men as they fret over their lessons and grow pallid and jelly-spined when confronted with a confident woman. The woman in question is Diana, poised, self-aware, and comfortable in her sexuality. She toys with them much as a cat might, and they in turn quiver like bunnies in her presence. They see her and her power as something to fear, to resist.
This gentle, kid-gloved attack on the emotional limitations of the buttoned up English young man is situated within an appealingly sun-bright and nimble comedy of manners. Miller knows the play well, having also directed it for English Touring Theatre back in 2007 – he even seems to have borrowed some of the same costumes for this revival – and his production has both a huge amount of charm and a lightness of touch, this Orange Tree reworking possibly even more so.
It’s not the easiest thing to pull off, maintaining this breeziness of tone while also digging deeper into what the play has to say about the costume of masculinity, both then, and arguably, now, but Miller manages it. His cast are excellent, which helps. William Belchambers is note-perfect as the upright, and initially uptight, Commander Rogers – his expression of utter incomprehension his a joy – Joe Eyre brings a brittleness and small, intriguing streak of cruelty to the character of Kit, Diana’s paramour at the start of his play, and Alex Bhat has a ball with the complexities of the character of Alan, the would-be writer who maintains an air of aloofness but in the end is the most susceptible of all to Diana’s tactical approach to her love life. Tom Hansen also displays top-notch comedic skills as the genially dim Brian, who has ‘solved’ the issue of women by opting to pay for what one suspects is an entirely different kind of French lesson.
The play’s funniest and most eloquent scene sees all the men donning fancy dress and getting steaming drunk at a costume party; it’s here where we really get a glimpse of what lies beneath the pose and the pomade. Genevieve Gaunt, as Diana, and Sarah Winter as the more grounded and sensible Jacqueline, also do brilliannt things with their roles and the play’s most nuanced scenes is one in which the two of them discuss the different ways in which men see them. Rattigan makes it clear that Diana is playing the cards dealt to her the best and only way she knows how. She’s not a monster, nor an outright figure of fun. And while the chaps say beastly things about her, it’s clear throughout that the playing field, in so very many ways, isn’t a level one. Something that still feels all too true.
French Without Tears is not an unproblematic play, and it does not come close to the emotional depth of something like The Deep Blue Sea or After the Dance, but nor was it ever aiming to do so. It is, however, alert to the different ways in which all the characters are trapped by the expectations placed on them by their gender and class, and for all its froth and balletic wit it’s surprisingly resonant in this regard, as Miller’s production makes clear.