Molière’s The Miser started life as a five-act comedy. Fortunately for those catching the train home, Sean Foley and Phil Porter have rewritten it as a two-act, two and a half hour comedy that hilariously sends up every theatrical stereotype with a terrific selection of comic actors.
Set in 17th century Paris, it contains all the best stock characters of Commedia Dell’arte; the foolish old man, his vain children and a wily servant or two. The aged miser Harpagon loves nothing more than money, but is deeply paranoid that everyone is trying to steal it. Between his scheming children, embittered servants and a sassy go-between, everyone is. When Harpagon takes a shine to his son’s sweetheart, the race is on for all to get their hands on the old man’s fortune.
Returning to the stage, Griff Rhys Jones takes the role of the titular tight-fist. A goggle-eyed, lecherous old crock, he plays Harpagon with the theatricality and gleeful relish of a pantomime villain, capable of reducing the audience to laughter with a single bewildered glance.
The show is also billed as comedian Lee Mack’s play debut. This becomes apparent, with his Maître Jacques more than resembling his character in Not Going Out in behaviour and mannerisms. Yet Mack, with his hang dog expression and talent for ad-libbing, is well suited to the part of self-serving Jacques. The front rows of the stalls are much abused by several characters direct address, but Mack is a repeat offender, using his stand-up experience to brilliant effect and looking entirely comfortable on stage. We could perhaps do without his smattering of modern terms in place of curses (“Shia LaBeouf! Pret A Manger!”), but it’s a riotously funny performance, particularly as he bashes away at the harpsichord like a possessed, bedraggled Elton John.
Joining him in the comedy crossover is Andi Osho as the wheeling and dealing Frosine. Like Mack she appears to take joy in smashing down the fourth wall, and injects a huge amount of energy into her scenes. An exchange with Harpagon where she insists to extremes that the pretty young Marianne prefers geriatric men is priceless.
Ryan Gage is excellent as Harpagon’s foppish, lisping son Cléante. Flouncing in, resplendent in wig, face powder and frilly clothes, Gage hits the ground running and keeps up his manic energy for the entirety of the performance. Katy Wix also delights as his petulant sister Elise, a perfect send-up of stereotypical acting in ‘the classics’. As her beau Valère, Mathew Horne is more than a match, artfully strutting and posturing, terrifically disdainful as he goes toe to toe with Maître Jacques. Ellie White as Marianne is a surprise highlight of the evening, with her overly refined enunciation making her almost incomprehensible to the other characters.
Foley and Porter’s adaptation has been described as ‘freely adapted’ and the label is only too apt. With Frosine encouraging Marianne to ‘get her game face on’ as Harpagon makes his advances, and Maître Jacques informing us that that was a bit of social commentary we just heard there, it’s a very modern script. Sometimes it verges a little on too much ‘of the moment’, with some current references shoehorned in and characters keen to inform us on the topical themes included. It’s good for now, but a revival in even as little as five years time would already look dated. The best laughs come from the universal stuff, some fabulous slapstick and some wildly far-reaching revelations – Molière knew what he was doing when he created these situations for the characters of Commedia to run riot in.
Alice Power’s set makes for a fantastic playground, presenting the interior and garden of a crumbling Parisian pile, however the cast need a little more refinement in their interaction with it for its full comic potential to be unleashed, and when the energy drops in the second half, it’s noticeable.
Despite this, the laughs come thick and fast through the ensuing chaos, and with some stand out comedic performances, it seems like there’s still plenty of life in Molière’s old Miser yet.