Lee Mack makes his West End debut alongside seasoned stage actor Griff Rhys Jones in a ‘freely adapted’ version of one of Moliere’s most popular plays. Adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, this modern reworking of The Miser stays faithful to the original comic intentions of the 17th-century play, while making it relevant for a contemporary audience.
The Miser sees Rhys Jones in the title role playing an elderly patriarch obsessed by his fortune to the detriment of his relationships, particularly with his daughter and foppish son. Mack is the faithful family retainer, undertaking all the roles in the household to emphasise The Miser’s frugality and, more importantly, to add to the comic business.
Ill matched arranged marriages, subterfuge and counter subterfuge then ensue, s providing the framework for a well-planned farce, culminating in the (implausible) bringing together of a long lost family, rightful lovers restored and the Miser reunited with his money. A happy ending for all, with no hint of a morality tale.
The play is rooted in the tradition of Commedia Dell’arte, a style of theatre that evolved in the renaissance in Italy and spread throughout Europe through the tradition of the travelling players. Relying on stock characters, situations and dialogue, the shows were partly improvised and the style and form is recognisable to us today, most notably as being a precursor to the Christmas pantomime. But don’t let the pantomime comparison mar your thoughts on Commedia Dell’arte. With its fixed hierarchy of characters, they are interspersed into all manner of performance. The Miser of this play is a recognisable stock character similar to that of Fagin from Oliver! and even Mr Burns from the Simpsons. Think of their characteristics, their posture and shape – they are all derived from the Commedia Dell’arte character, Pantalone. The same can be said for the other characters in the play, giving it an instantly recognisable and familiar feel.
The comic business and quick and witty dialogue are well thought out and planned and executed with precision timing. The company at the Garrick are all well suited to their parts, playing them excellently. Matthew Horne is wonderful as butler Valere and Ryan Gage abounds the stage with all the exuberance of a March hare as Cleante, the foppish son hopelessly in love with a girl he glimpsed just the day before.
Everything about the production was superb and it makes for a great night at the theatre. It’s light, fun, funny and engaging from start to finish. There were a couple of teething problems the first of which being the comedy pieces of plaster that fell from the ceiling. Rarely did they hit their marks and, thus, failed to illicit the comic effect for which they were intended or the reaction from the cast. Also, within the show ,there are a few songs smattered about. These are great points in the show with witty lyrics, however, I lost a fair few of the lines, particularly in the opening of Act II. With the actors not wearing mics (and rightly so) the sound of the song just didn’t carry as well in the auditorium. Finally, my only other thought was to do with some of the contemporary references and asides to the audience. Most of them were perfectly placed and well timed and fulfilled their intention. A small handful of them, I felt, seemed forced and thus jarred a little rather than flowed as good comedy should and does throughout the majority of the play.
That said, it did not detract me from enjoying the play, enjoying the performances and the work by all on the production. It was the first Moliere play I have seen (I am ashamed to say) but it certainly will not be the last.
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