Going to the theatre can be a daunting, tricky experience. Old plays especially use archaic language and out of date references. The whole thing can be an exercise in trying to keep up with a complicated plot that doesn’t ring any bells in the present day. So surely a comedy that is almost 350 years old doesn’t stand a chance of being appreciated in 2017?
With The Miser, Sean Foley and Phil Porter have produced something accessible and entertaining, even to first time theatre goers. It’s a farcical, joke-a-minute affair, freely adapted from the original by Moliere – the masterful French dramatist with only one name.
The basic plot is rooted in the 17th century, but there are modern, satirical jokes. The outrageously foppish Cleante could be lifted straight out of Made In Chelsea with his vanity and sense of entitlement. The script even references Sports Direct and the economy.
A star-studded cast has been assembled for the West End show, including Lee Mack, Griff Rhys Jones and Mathew Horne (Gavin from Gavin & Stacey). Mack has a cheeky, everyman appeal. He is the antithesis of someone like Stewart Lee, who he once sniped at for being snobbish and intellectual.
There’s a lot of slapstick and physical comedy in the production. Pieces of the set fall on the actors’ heads at opportune moments and Mack’s character Maître Jacques clowns around, hiding under tables and making daft costume changes on the fly.
Harpagon, the miser at the centre of the tale, is played by Griff Rhys Jones. He has a fanatical preoccupation with money. The play follows his stingy antics and the efforts of those close to him to get their hands on his fortune. In a truly unexpected twist we see that he is wiser to their scheming than we give him credit for.
The Miser is a grotesque old man. Jones’ interpretation of the role is like Count Arthur Strong of TV fame, but with a twist. In some ways he is senile and out of touch, but at the same time pronounces, in an aside, that those around him must think he is “a dunderhead”.
There were seemingly interactive elements, with the cast talking to individual audience members, much like a stand up comedian does. Indeed many of the roles are played by people who have done stand up. It was unclear however when, if indeed at all, they were genuinely addressing someone in the audience or when they were employing a theatrical device.
This incarnation of The Miser is lighthearted entertainment which is for the most part easy to follow. Some of the dialogue might go over your head, and some of the gags will be lost in the sheer number of gags, but clever writing and ingenious casting ensure it remains a classic to this day.
In the spirit of a laugh in every line: every so often in the Garrick Theatre you can hear the deep rumble of a tube train passing underneath. As they break the fourth wall in every other possible way, perhaps the ensemble cast are missing an opportunity in not acknowledging this. Just a thought…