West Yorkshire Playhouse / Queen's Hotel, Leeds
Opened 20 February, 2008
**** / **

If any writer on the contemporary British drama scene deserves to be called “irrepressible”, it is Ranjit Bolt. Indeed, more eyebrows may be raised at the use of “contemporary” in his regard. Bolt is a translator and adapter, most often of Corneille or Molière: The Grouch is an update of the latter’s Le Misanthrope. But he thrives on contradictions: his translations are usually in verse forms which draw attention to their artifice (here, tetrameter couplets), yet his characters sound quite natural and modern-day most of the time. The eponymous malcontent Alceste here becomes Alan, a literary critic who delights in plain-speaking as a corrective against the mindless flatteries routinely peddled in his and his beloved Celia’s set. He and his friend Philip remark about an ingratiating poetaster: “God, how the fellow does persist!” – “He wants you on his Facebook list.” When Celia is revealed to be the biggest hypocrite of the lot, playing all her acquaintances and suitors off against one another, the unmasking is done by reading out incriminating e-mails (which, interestingly, are rendered in prose). In Bolt’s work, touches like this either do not feel laboured at all, or else their contrivance becomes part of the fun, as when Alan, refusing to pass judgement on another’s poem, over-emphasises the verse he himself speaks: “What right to judge it have I got?/Who am I – T.S. El-i-ot?”  (The only obtrusive modish touch is when Alan lumps Political Correctness in with social hypocrisy as one of his bugbears.)

Sarah Esdaile’s production takes place in one of those spacious, fashionable London apartments that only ever exist on wide stages, with a spiral staircase running from a trap space under the stage to two levels above it. (A running gag has the unspeaking valet Bates repeatedly at the top when he has to come back down to answer the door.) Allan Corduner as Alan, in bottle-green corduroy suit, is clearly not one of the glitterati, but nor is he an obvious, grotesque contrast to the beautiful people, and his railing is comparatively restrained for a Molière protagonist. (Bolt’s fondness for fruity expletives is kept under a tighter rein in this work, too.) It is nevertheless difficult to see quite what Denise Gough’s It-girl Celia is doing with him; however, her protestations of genuine love seem moderately plausible until all those around her join in a kind of intervention against her bitchery. They are marshalled by Lizzie Hopley as Fay, so deliciously pernickety that when wine was accidentally spilt onstage during the press performance, Hopley turned a pointedly mincing little step over the rivulet into another character note.

As usual with Molière, all our moral identification is with the plain-speaking, rational characters – here, Steven Pinder as Philip and Kate Miles as Celia’s cousin Eileen – but our real delight is in the cartoon excesses of those we are supposed to repudiate. Christopher Ettridge cuts what for him is an unusually epicene figure as one of Celia’s set, accompanied by Benedict Sandiford with an entire arm made up in cod-tribal back and red swirling tattoos; Habib Nasib Nadar is the unconquerably self-regarding scribbler Orville. In the end, unusually, Alan is even allowed an element of justification for his conduct; his error is simply to have gone too far.

It certainly proved a welcome relief after an afternoon of rape, mutilation, baby-eating and general apocalypse in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. The play is set in a hotel room in Leeds, and it is generally accepted that Kane had the Queen’s Hotel in mind; now, a student company are staging the play to a dozen people at a time in a room at the Queen’s. It is instructive to find that authenticity of location can actually detract from the power of the viewing experience; obviously, we do not truly believe in these events when we see them onstage, but up close (with us in the actors’ faces rather than them in ours) the principal effect is to emphasise their unreality and the fact that the company are working gingerly around numerous constraints (they could not even get an exemption from the hotel’s smoking ban for the several cigarettes smoked in the script). A brave idea, but one whose drawbacks should perhaps have led to its abandonment before it was fully executed. Still, it took me a while to drop off to sleep in the same hotel later that night…

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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