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Theatre review: The Hypochondriac/ Liverpool Playhouse

Phill Key watches the French classic that's given the Playhouse its biggest advance ticket sales ever. Is it the Roger McGough factor?

Published on June 24th 2009.

Theatre review: The Hypochondriac/ Liverpool Playhouse

"HOW do you do?" It's a simple enough greeting but not one you would want to address to Argan, the leading character of The Hypochondriac.

He's one of those chaps who thinks he has every ailment in the medical books and loves talking about them.

The 17th Century French satirical writer Moliere first wrote this play about him in 1673 and it has been performed in numerous versions and translations ever since. This latest from the pen of Liverpool-born poet Roger McGough turns the prose play into a verse comedy and very funny it is too.

McGough first tackled Moliere last year with Tartuffe, a huge success for the Playhouse and due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday, 5 July.

The Hypochondriac is very much in the same vein, full of clever rhymes, loud characters, good jokes and so-bad-they-are-good jokes, and ridiculous situations.

With Argan often concerned about his bowel movements, there is a mild scatological touch, too. The play opens with Argan (offstage) passing wind and emerging on stage with an empty chamber pot. "Rien, Rien. Je regrette - rien," he announces.

It is a line which pretty well sums up the comic mood of the piece, part sophisticated humour, part bawdiness.

Although set in period, the comedy has a very modern feel. Director Gemma Bodinetz claims the translation is closer to the original French than many other versions but not being an expert on 17th century French I am unable to verify this.

There are modernisms, no doubt. Ricky Tomlinson's famous Royle Family catchphrase is recalled with "Mon derriere!" while McGough remembers his pop music Scaffold days with an apt line from Lily the Pink: "As a doctor and saviour of the human race, remember medicinal compound is most efficacious in every case."

The story revolves around Argan's attempts to get his daughter Angelique to marry a doctor in order to get free treatment for his supposed ills. Unfortunately she has fallen in love with someone else and is understandably not keen on the plan.

Anyway, Argan's feisty maid Toinette conspires with Argan's brother, Beralde, to thwart his plan by disguising herself as a quack doctor and exposing the falseness of doctoring (in those days, of course).

There is a slow build to the farce to come but when it does, the comedy fairly bowls along.

There are moments when the rhyming couplets and gags are dangerously close to pantomime but the "McGoughiere" wit ( as the Playhouse describe it) keeps it just on the right side of class.

Typically there are some knock-knock jokes - in French (example:Frappe, frappe! Qui est la? Losta. Losta qui?).

It is the sort of comedy that requires upfront performances and it gets them from the cast of nine (some doubling up) under Gemma Bodinetz's energetic direction.

There are moments when the rhyming couplets and gags are dangerously close to pantomime but the "McGoughiere" wit (as the Playhouse describe it) keeps it just on the right side of class

Leanne Best makes a comprehensive meal out of her role as the argumentative maid, Toinette, lively, direct and enjoying herself in false moustache when disguised as the doctor, so much so that she earned her own exit applause.

Argan gets a delightfully grumpy performance from Clive Francis, maintaining some dignity even when returning from the lavatory with a "specimen" or bending down to prepare for some colonic irrigation.

Jake Harders offers wonderfully over-the-top speeches as the earnest lover, Cleante, and Toby Dantzic is very odd indeed as the pathetic, would-be suitor Thomas. Frustrated daughter Angelique is nicely essayed by Lucinda Raikes, and Brigid Zengeni blusters well as the overbearing wife Beline.

When Moliere first staged the comedy it also included some musical and ballet interludes (the French audiences of the day liked a complete package). There's no ballet but we do get a few silly songs with music by Conor Linehan, actually essential to the plot and lightly amusing in their own way.

If there is one letdown it is the set by Mike Britton, giving the piece an austere, credit crunch look.

There are three wooden walls rather like fences, one at the back, two at the sides and it looks very much as if the play is being performed in a shed. Occasionally a door will open in a wall/ fence to allow exits and entrances (including the lavatory) and bits of furniture are carried on and off stage. But one misses the luxurious stylings of 17th century France.

The play is touring after Liverpool (it is a co-production with English Touring Theatre) so perhaps on-the-road considerations had something to do with it.

That apart, the comedy works well, preserving Moliere's convoluted plotting but with a definite touch of the 21st century. There are big laughs but rather more smiles in a show that has already been packing them in during the previews (it has had the largest advance sales seen at the Playhouse).

Such is the demand that its run has already been extended for a further week. The Hypochondriac will now run until July 18.

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FidoJune 24th 2009.

It is a pity that we are so dumbed down that McGough thought it necessary to tamper with the elegance of the original French masterpiece.In French this play is hilarious, in English it is merely dull.

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