Playing the corrupt and very firmly lapsed Communist mayor of a Paris suburb, Nicholas Bishop provides a fine example of the sort of broad, mannered performance that a good farce requires. Unfortunately he’s not in a farce – he’s in… whatever this is: a bewildering mix of ropey poetry and even ropier politics whose main redeeming features were that it was 45 minutes long and managed to amuse a fair proportion of the audience a great deal more than it amused me.
How it did this is a mystery. It was hard to get past the author’s decision to write the whole thing in a sort of tin-eared verse that almost completely ignored meter – as with the famously bad poet William McGonagall the only important thing seemed to be that words rhymed at roughly regular intervals. This might have been bearable if there was anything except talking happening on stage, but the ‘slapstick’ advertised in the promotional literature was limited to a laboured visual gag, some clumsy fondling and a single inexplicable pratfall. The rest of the time the action took place offstage while characters either hurled great stiff chunks of exposition at each other, or even greater, stiffer chunks of not particularly comic monologue at the audience.
As the programme notes are devoted to putting things into some sort of political context – few farces I’ve seen have felt the need for so much detail about the decline of the French left wing – it’s probably worth mentioning that this is not the play’s strong suit. For some reason it’s set during the French race riots (it would have worked equally well, or badly, in May ’68 to name one of a thousand other settings) yet there are only white faces on stage. Offstage, the Arab population is represented as a credulous, volatile hive-mind – the complex economic concerns of the actual riots are reduced here to knee-jerk fundamentalism.
I wasn’t expecting carefully considered realism or even sensitivity – this is, after all, meant to be a comedy rather than a David Hare monologue – but the setting and the onstage hectoring seemed to indicate that the play had some sort of point behind it. If only I could tell what that point was.