BWW Review: SACHA GUITRY - MA FILLE ET MOI, Drayton Arms Theatre
It's a curious and persistent trend - while the Brits love a bit of French high culture (a spin round any art gallery or a look at an opera house's season programme will tell you that) we just don't like their popular culture stuff at all.
The press around the recent death of Johnny Hallyday (always, and I mean always, described as "unknown on this side of the channel"), the niche appeal of Jacques Tati and the regular Hollywood remakes of popular French movies like Three Men and a Baby prove that proposition. (Maybe Johnny would have got lucky had he worn a silver helmet?)
Against that backdrop, in one of the biggest French cities by population - Londres is home to hundreds of thousands of French nationals - Marianne Badrichani presents another curio of French theatre, this time a set of extracts from plays by Sacha Guitry, woven into a narrative that explains some of his character. Does it work? Bien sûr it does!
Guitry was, and, 61 years after his death, still is very popular in France, a man who made movies as well as writing and acting in plays in many genres. Though his wartime accommodation of the strictures of occupied Paris led to a dip in the esteem in which he was held, the love of the French public never really diminished. (Incredibly, before the war, he smuggled an Enigma machine to London which went on to Bletchley Park - so the world owes him plenty).
If the name is new to you, his Wikipedia entry is very detailed and worth a look before viewing the show.
And what a splendid, innovative, engaging show it is! Performed in French with very clear surtitles, five of Guitry's plays provide sources for some funny, poignant and wry observations on the battle of sexes.
I enjoyed the scam pulled by a wealthy man to test his prostitute lover's true motives - though out of tune with contemporary mores, the artfulness of the scheme and the brilliance of the acting carries the day.
There's also plenty of meta stuff when we don't know if we're watching a play, a play about a play, or a "the making of" show of a play about a play. Tricksy, true, but director Badrichani keeps a tight grip on things and the storytelling never wavers.
That's also a credit to the actors. Sean Rees plays Guitry in multiple roles (including himself), a charismatic womaniser with an eye for an actress that would these days... well, we'd better just say that things were different then and leave it there,
Edith Vernes sparkles opposite Rees, sometimes all hauteur, sometimes just a bit desperate, sometimes channeling anger like only a French woman scorned can. That said, no matter what her mood, Vernes is compelling and terribly funny - Guitry, for all his dodgy sexual politics, could write a marvellous part for a woman.
Anais Bachet has much less to do but, on her London stage debut, holds her own commendably, especially as a Miss Moneypenny-like PA, a quasi-dominatrix with a pencil instead of a whip.
There's such a lot of material here and it's such fun that this is one of those rare all-through shows that could have done with an interval (and there were plenty of natural breaks that suggested themselves for a house lights up moment). But the evening speeds by in a whirlwind of slightly anachronistic wit and smart theatrical jokes that work just as well in English as in French. And, as I remarked above, it's not often you can say that.
Sacha Guitry - Ma Fille Et Moi continues at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 3 February.
Photo Sonia Fitoussi