first night

The Girl From Maxim's

Hamish Inglis is immersed in the world of 19th century France in Fourth Wall Theatre's latest production.

I had high hopes walking into The Girl From Maxims, with a star studded cast from many of DST’s top shows over the past terms. And to some extent they fulfilled these expectations. The cast generally stayed in the character of high farce very well, and their responses and movements showed excellent energy and precision.

Upon entrance into the theatre we were welcomed by a gaggle of disreputable French damsels, with songs from characters on stage, in speakeasy style. From this we fell into the story of Lucien Petypon, a French scholar awakening from the first drunken night of his life to find in his home the seductive ‘Shrimp’ – the Girl from Maxims – who he had gone home with the night before. From here the farce set in, with a series of miscommunications and complications culminating in a manic combination of mistaken identity and absurd situations.

The set was brilliantly made, and the changes made from act to act were skilful and supported the scene beautifully. The lighting was well executed, and the technicians succeeded in complementing the excellent set with atmospheric washes of colour.

The actors on balance did well, giving confident movements and well timed conversational responses. Special regards need to be given to Annie Davison, who played ‘Shrimp’ with an exuberant and charming brilliance, flirting and controlling the situation with ease. Alex Colville played his role of Édouard convincingly, giving a more understated performance than many, and yet still getting laughs from the audience. Claire Forster, whilst in a small role as Clémentine, showed amazing physicality and gave the character real life on stage.

However these excellent performances grappled with the larger issues of both play and production. Writing in the 1890s, Feydeau pushed the absurdity, speed and mathematical complexity of farce as far as it could go. This culminated in a piece of acquired taste that may be one of the reasons why the play, though successful in France, has not been as popular in Britain. The director Tyler Rainford then bravely chose to push the already vertiginous boundaries of the farce even further with ‘aims to depart heavily from any semblance of naturalism’ and instead to emphasise its ‘overt physicality, energy and absurdity’. This was a brave move, and he was successful in portraying the play in this manner, as its physicality, energy and absurdity were impressive to behold. But for me, whether the issue lay in the play or the production, this performance took more than it gave back.

I found the greatest issue was the lack of contrast. The farce was kept at the most extreme level throughout, and whilst this can be hilarious in short bursts the absence of moments of calm gave the audience little time to recover. Because the actors were so heavily focussed upon slapstick humour many of the best lines and clever parts of play and plot were easily missed by the audience. One example being the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, where characters sharing their thoughts with the audience found themselves lost in a maelstrom of hyperactivity. The heightened absurdity of each character caused them to blend into one another, with their constant energy inhibiting any nuance. The scenes plastered by with intense pace, giving you the feeling that you were watching a film in fast forward for two and a half hours. However in this analysis it is hard to judge how far the overall impression was due to the play or the direction.

But the play did have genuinely funny moments. It was particularly amusing watching the characters failing to get through doors and producing ad libs to cover it. Also entertaining was the posh gusto with which General Petypon du Grelé adopted Shrimp’s catchphrase of ‘Hoop-lah, that one's for me’. Another roaring laugh was gathered from the crowd during the first act when an angelic chair was lowered from the roof, to general fanfare - a truly hilarious spectacle.

In the end this play was full of contradiction. Although the actors were skilled, the set exquisite and the tech slick, this production was for me compromised by its blistering pace and lack of contrast. Because of this the show promoted more appreciation of the spectacle than an enjoyment of the farce. On the other hand it is great to see a translated play and extreme example of its genre performed in DST. It’s also heartening to see directors being brave and taking risks with productions as experiment is such an important aspect of theatre.

29 January 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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