|Russel Vincent & Keith Thompson|
This play, which is described as a boulevard comedy, was a smash hit in Paris in 1987, where it was originally entitled Pyjamas pour Six. This English adaptation was premiered in 1991 at the Apollo Theatre in London. It is a farce within the Plautus tradition, where the accepted moral order is turned on its head and is seen on stage to be reversed.
Don't Dress for Dinner is set in the present day in a country house some distance from Paris. Bernard and his wife, Jacqueline, have converted and old farm building to use at weekends. On this weekend, Bernard is planning to entertain his mistress while Jacqueline visits her mother. He is quickly out-manoeuvred by his stylish wife when she discovers that his alibi, her lover, Robert, is coming to keep Bernard company. Add a cordon bleu cook who is mistaken for the mistress and you have all the ingredients for a naughty French weekend.
The character list contains three men; two aged between thirty-five and forty, and BIG George. There are three women; one described as stunning, one stylish, and a comedienne with glamorous potential. This is quite a formidable 'wish-list' for any director of an amateur company dependent on who comes forward, and I gather that only five people did. Other qualities needed for farce are good timing, inventive improvisation skills and actors able to learn and deliver short, quick-fire dialogue with understanding and expression. This company provided all these ingredients, but with some interesting compromises.
Upon entering the auditorium the stage was attractively furnished and in full view of the audience. Two chairs were set where the tab curtains might have been, which added space to quite a small acting area. An abundance of beams and brick were in keeping with an old farmhouse as the script suggested. The atmosphere of affluent rural charm was however missing, giving the lie to Jacqueline's 'beautiful' eye for interior decoration. The pictures on the walls were oddly matched and not placed with the care one might expect from a stylish French housewife whose main residence is in Paris.
The set consisted of two curtained doors from the main barn into the 'piggery' and the 'cow-shed', and an opening leading to the kitchen. The tall window over the front door hinted at a barn conversion although the front door and knob appeared to be very flimsy. As a central feature this could have been more convincing and implied that the owners were wealthy. The window in the door gave the audience a view of new arrivals, which heightened our anticipation and worked each time a silhouette appeared. The set builders did sterling work, but more style and affluence was needed to convince us of Bernard's extravagant lifestyle.
The house lights were lowered and the play began with Bernard's initial entrance from the kitchen. Keith Thompson, as Bernard, was the director's first compromise. Keith is well-known in Hertfordshire and beyond as a very talented actor. It was my pleasure to act with him over twenty years ago, so I know he is no longer thirty-five or even forty! Disappointed as I was that Bernard was being played by an elderly Don Juan, the production promised to be of dazzling quality. When Jacqueline, played by Christine Mackinven, appeared she was the younger, vivacious wife married to a wealthy husband who was possibly in need of some Viagra, as we soon discover that she is having an affair with Bernard's best friend. One waited in trepidation for Robert's appearance. Fortunately Russell Vincent looked very much younger than forty, although the director didn't cut the line revealing that he was Bernard's best man (but then, copyright regulations permit only limited cuts).
As the couple got into their stride the audience responded well to the excellent facial expressions and convincing sense of panic generated by Bernard as Jacqueline's suitcase went back upstairs. The antique case should have been sent back to the Ark - I'm not surprised that Jacqueline did not like to be seen with it! The sound cues for the telephone were spot on each time, but the shouting that accompanied the tussle between Robert and Bernard should have alerted even a deaf Jacqueline to their plotting. In such an intimate theatre a hushed 'stage whisper' might have worked effectively and added more tension to their frantic devising.
Part of the skill of comedy is letting the audience in on the secrets - our enjoyment comes from knowing something that the other characters on stage don't know. The silhouette of Suzi the cook (played by Linda Vincent) behind the front door was one such moment. The double entendres in the dialogue were evident but more eye contact with Robert when asking for the 200 francs would have shown us what Suzi thought of him!
Playing to the audience rather than at them is vital for successful comedy. There were many occasions when different members of the cast stood squarely facing the audience and fixed their eyes on the middle distance to deliver their lines. In the programme the director tells us that 'farce has to be played for real even if the situations are totally contrived', so why these monologues to the lighting box? The audience was responding well and might have liked to be spoken to more directly. Making eye contact with the audience does, however, take confidence, as you cannot rehearse this easily with a small cast. That quibble aside, everyone was very quick on their cues, and the timing of punch lines was generally good. The audience fully appreciated Suzette's quick change from her waitress uniform to chic dress.
|Keith Thompson & Loretta Freeman|
Suzanne the model, played by Loretta Freeman, fulfilled all my expectations of a chic Parisian mistress. This gifted actress captured all the double meanings, with perfect timing and through the use of appropriate inflection and facial expressions. The suggestion that she and Robert might get together was well made from the moment they met and this idea was developed to the end.
There were many inventive moments of comedy, such as Bernard producing the ice-tongs from nowhere to chase Robert around the furniture. George's outline at the front door prepared us for the appearance of a suitably muscular-looking Ray Newton, alias Suzette's chef husband. There was something not quite right about George's costume, although his Italian accent was a delight. Do chefs wear jeans? The posed foursome on and behind the sofa was a delightfully contrived photograph. As the pace picked up some reactions were reminiscent of a tennis match, as Suzette's eyeballs bounced between Robert and Bernard. The audience gave Robert their own seal of approval following his long and involved explanation, and Bernard's whimpered plea for help worked superbly.
In conclusion, this was a very entertaining and polished production. The cast obviously enjoyed participating in this play, which they communicated to the audience.
Ann Neuff is Head of Drama at Hitchin Girls' School. She has produced numerous student plays at theatres in this country and abroad.