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There’s not a lot to say about the Almeida’s latest production of The Hypochondriac, in a new version of Molière’s lavatorial farce by Richard Bean. The plot is predictable enough: old disgustingly self-centred hypochondriac who gets an unnatural amount of pleasure from his hand administered enemas, and proceeds to store the unpleasant results in glass jars around his wood-panelled room, attempts to thwart the love-match of his darling daughter so she can marry a fool of a young doctor.
Of course, the daughter has already fallen in love. Of course, the hypochondriac father prefers a ready, and free, medical practitioner as son-in-law. Of course all comes out right in the end – in the play that is. There is a brilliant twist at its conclusion which adds a touch of dark reality to what otherwise might have been a light evening’s entertainment.
Lindsay Posner has directed an unusually strong cast of thirteen actors. The performances, you can’t fault; the script, I’m not so sure. The anachronisms and contemporary innuendos sound alien in a play which, from the start, appears to rely on the premise that we are transported back to seventeenth century France and the farcical plays of Molière. Halfway through, the actors onstage enter a forced and theatricalized dialogue about the wondrous King of France whose beneficence and judgement is beyond measure. As they bow to an imaginary royal box, we see the political dimension of a play which panders to the basest of human delight whilst acknowledging the patronage of its aristocratic audience.
I know I stand accused of reading too much into what should be seen as a light-hearted comical romp full of flatulence and urine and onstage insertions of enemas which make the TV personality predilection with colonic irrigation seem positively tasteful. The audience obviously enjoyed it. If the hypochondriac himself was determined that his life was at an unhealthy end, from the number of taut facelifts in the auditorium, the Almeida was attracting those who are desperately clinging on to life. Definitely a play which openly attacks doctors, and a play which was greeted with much knowing laughter at all the doctor jokes.
Henry Goodman is, as ever, brilliant as the hypochondriac Argan, spending most of the play in his wheelchair-cum-commode. He resides close by the home’s water closet, but he refuses to use a contraption which prevents his servant’s unwilling scrutiny of his every bodily movement. Goodman rants and raves as the father whose daughter refuses to do as she is told. A tour de force from start to finish.
Goodman is perfectly balanced by the wondrous comic performance of the maid, Toinette. Lyndsey Marshal is truly a star. Her comic timing faultless, her every move, gesture and spoken comment a delight. Marshal succeeds by injecting a clarity and reality into her performance which appears completely natural, completely effortless. She is in fact timing her reactions and her asides with scalpel-wielding efficiency. Toinette is the true physician amongst a sea of charlatans. Marshal brings Toinette to life.
Toinette is aided by Stephen Boxer who plays Beralde, the cavalier brother of the despicable hypochondriac. Boxer creates a character who is tolerant of his brother, determined to see all are happy and content, and who emerges the true human conscience to the play. It is Beralde who helps Toinette to show the hypochondriac the error of his ways.
There is more than just the error of believing you are going to drop dead at any moment. This hypochondriac has married, obviously for the second time, a woman of – shall we say – dubious moral character. Ronni Ancona portrays a conflation of her famous caricatures in Béline, the wife who is determined to assist her rich husband into the grave and then remain a very merry widow. Ancona’s performance is well-suited to the farcical, almost pantomime dynamic of the play.
Other characters come and go, all trying to fleece the ever-willing hypochondriac. David Killick is the smooth physician, Monsieur Diafoierhoea, whose name conjures images of the loose stools the hypochondriac longs to achieve with his enemas. The good doctor has a son, Thomas Diafoierhoea, a youth and trainee doctor of gargantuan gaucheness and clumsy bedside manner. John Marquez nearly steals the show as Thomas, wriggling with self-conscious glee at every mention of the opposite sex. Steven Beard plays a shaven headed quack doctor whose leather bucket of enema and huge applicator heralds yet more lavatory humour.
The love interest is provided by Carey Mulligan and Kris Marshall who, as the star-crossed lovers Angélique and Cléante face the wrath of father for their youthful indiscretion. Mulligan and Marshall perform an impromptu cod-opera which has all the verbal intricacy of a Ronnie Barker sketch. Mulligan is delicious as the breathless young lover, often on the verge of tears at her impending doom, but ever willing to forgive her father for the excesses of his self-centred passion.
The Hypochondriac is an amusing play which will take you away from the troubles of life. We can all recognize a hypochondriac in some degree in ourselves or our families. At the Almeida, this is brought to life by a strong and energetic cast who draw more belly laughs out of this predictable and tasteless plot than I could ever have imagined.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005
Originally published on R&V 22-11-05
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