07 February 2008

Ring Around the Moon - Playhouse Theatre, Tuesday 5th February 2008

Synopsis (take a deep breath and make yourself a coffee – this is long and complicated!):

Ring Around the Moon opens with the aristocratic Hugo, talking with Joshua, his butler, about Hugo’s brother, Frederic, who has been sleeping outside his fiancee’s bedroom window while she is a guest at the family’s estate. Frederic and Hugo are identical twins, but Hugo is good with women and Frederic inept. Hugo and Joshua are unhappy with Frederic’s fawning over Diana Messerschmann, his fiancee. Frederic’s love for Diana is indeed insecure. Enter Patrice Bombelles (Messerschmann’s male secretary) and Lady India (Messerschmann’s mistress and Hugo and Frederic’s cousin), who reveal their affair behind the back of the industrialist, Messerschmann. Patrice is especially worried because wealthy Messerschmann pays Patrice’s salary and “keeps” Lady India. These two are replaced by Madame Desmermortes and her nephew, Hugo, he notifying her of LadyIndia’s affair with Messerschmann. Hugo informs Madame of Frederic’s impending marriage to Diana. Madame is unhappywith Messerschmann’s and Lady India’s affair because Messerschmann is not an aristocrat. Hugo informs Romainville he has seen him doting on a young girl (Isabelle) and further, knows he has brought her to the country. Hugo threatens to expose the meeting to Madame as a lecherous affair unless Romainville agrees to invite Isabelle to the Desmermortes estate and pose as Romainville’s niece. Isabelle and her mother soon arrive, the latter dazzled by the estate and the prospect of marrying Isabelle to a rich man. Isabelle thinks she has come just to dance. When Hugo greets them, Isabelle is preoccupied by his handsomeness Madame and Joshua enter, planning the ball to be held that evening. Hugo plans to parade the beautiful Isabelle at the ball so Frederic will fall in love with
her, and out of love with Diana. Romainville rushes in to alert Hugo about a rumple in the plan: Isabelle’s mother has recognized Madame’s companion, Capulat, as her long lost friend. Romainville is worried Isabelle’s mother will betray the plan to Capulat who will in turn tell Madame, giving away Romainville’s apparently lecherous connection to Isabelle and ruining his relationship with the Desmermortes. Romainville’s suspicions are confirmed after talking with the mother who has apparently already told Capulat too much. Hugo decides to tell Capulat to keep quiet, but before he can, Madame corners Romainville and intently questions him about his family connection to the enchanting “niece,” a grilling through which Romainville barely fakes his way. The final exchange of Act I has Capulat promising Isabelle’s mother to help her win Hugo for Isabelle.

Capulat slyly gives up misguided bits of Hugo’s plot to get Madame to connect Hugo and Isabelle. Madame is mystified (aren’t we all by this point!). Patrice enters with Lady India discussing Patrice’s terrible fear that Messerschmann will discover Patrice and Lady India’s affair. This excites India who romanticizes being poor. When Messerschmann enters, Patrice and Lady India leave, wondering if Messerschmann has seen them and guessed their affair. Isabelle finally tells Frederic — immediately after Hugo has kissed her to arouse Frederic’s jealousy — that she is not, as it appears, in love with Hugo, but with him. Hugo then tells Isabelle of his plan to inflame Frederic’s love still further with another fictional lover pretending to challenge Hugo to a duel if Hugo does not cease his attentions toward Isabelle. Shots will then ring out and Isabelle, acting as if she thinks Frederic dead, will fake drowning. Hugo will then “rescue” her and carry her to Frederic. So happy will Isabelle act to see Frederic still alive, and so flattered will Frederic be that Isabelle attempted to drown herself on his account, Frederic will fall in love with her. Isabellebecomes so frustrated in her still-unstated love for Hugot that she runs off. Diana enters having seen Hugo and Isabelle togetherDiana and getting Hugo to say he loves her (Diana) but he refuses. Enter Messerschmann. Diana complains to him that she is being upstaged by Isabelle, that Isabelle is stealing the attentions of the men at the ball. Messerschmann promises his daughter he will take care of everything. Now Hugo enters threatening Patrice to expose his affair with Lady India if Patrice will not be the one to play the jealous lover and duelist in Hugo’s crazy scheme. Patrice complies. Now Capulat enters with Isabelle’s mother, richly dressed as “Countess Funela”. Romainville enters and tells Hugo he is distraught because Messerschmann has threatened to ruin Romainville financially unless Romainville gets Isabelle out of the Desmermortes house. Patrice now enters to play the jealous lover, insult Hugo, and challenge him to a duel. But Patrice is ignorant that by this time Hugo has forgotten the plan, preoccupied as he is with Romainville’s hysteria and the “Countess Funela.”

Hugo, his plans in disarray, desperately discusses a new and fantastic plan — no longer to match Isabelle with Frederic by having her fake her drowning — but to embarrass the rich guests by exposing Isabelle as a humble girl, not an upper-class debutante as he led them to believe. Isabelle, will have none of it. Diana enters and complains to Isabelle about the misfortune of wealth. Isabelle ends up fighting with Diana. When Frederic discovers them, Isabelle mistakes him for Hugo, telling him off and confessing her love. Frederic admits he is not Hugo. Diana dislikes the attention Frederic and Isabelle pay each other and says she is leaving, demanding Frederic leave with her. Isabelle, now alone and distraught, is discovered by her mother. Isabelle tells her mother the charade is finished and that they are leaving. Messerschmann enters and tries to bribe Isabelle to leave the house. She refuses his money. He cannot believe it and continues raising his offers as fast as she rejects them. Suddenly, Messerschmann becomes disillusioned about the power of money and he and Isabelle begin tearing up stacks of notes. Isabelle then attempts to drown herself for real, but Hugo rescues her. Madame persuades Isabelle to forget Hugo and has Frederic console her in order to match them. She then attempts to convince Hugo of his love for Diana. Lady India announces that Messerschmann is financially ruining himself by selling off his assets. Diana declares that since her father is poor and her marriage with Frederic finished, she will learn to be poor. Hugo advises reconciliation with Frederic. Romainville enters and announces he will propose to Isabelle, but learns Isabelle is now with Frederic. In a note from Hugo brought in by Joshua, Hugo
confesses his love for Diana because he thinks her poor. Messerschmann then confirms the news of his financial ruin. Lady India is moved and entranced by the adventure of being poor. The play ends with Messerschmann reading a telegram saying that his attempts at financial ruin were perceived as manoeuvering, and have made him richer than ever.

Phew! I hope you’re still with me – would you believe that I edited that down by about half? As you might expect from reading that, I lost the plot here very quickly (in fact, after about 5 minutes) and only began to pick it up again towards the end of Act 1. The fact that Hugo and Frederick are played by the same actor, and that Diana and Lady India look very similar in this production and in Act II wear practically identical costumes merely added to my confusion – in fact, it wasn’t until they appeared on stage together about 10 minutes before the end that I actually realised they were two different people. I think it bewildered a lot of other people too – and I think this is going to be a major stumbling block to the success of this production. People don’t like to have to think at the theatre these days, pace stuff like “We Will Rock You”, “Grease”, “Dirty Dancing” and all the other tat in the West End based on screen musicals. In fact, after about 20 minutes, I found myself just watching the performances rather than trying to concentrate on the story.

A lot of this production comes perilously close to farce – not one of my favourite art forms. It all has to take place at a considerable speed (otherwise one would be in the theatre all bloody night) and, I think, needs considerable editing to make it bearable. It still feels like a VERY long show if you’re not completely au fait with the plot, and, given the length of the synopsis above, no doubt you will be in agreement. In fact, several people left at the interval, presumably to go and wrap their aching heads in wet towels.

There were some very good performances, however. Angela Thorne (late of “To the Manor Born”) was a wonderful Madame, looking and sounding like Lady Bracknell as played by Wendy Hillier, and delivered many of her wonderful lines with a complete sense of their “throwaway” value – always good for a laugh. I shall remember the line “He’s scuttling about like a dilapidated moth” for some considerable time! However, she seemed very, very dodgy on her lines occasionally (as did some other members of the cast) – there was quite a lot of umming and ahhing throughout, as well as the odd repeated word, as if her mental autocue had paused and she was waiting for it to catch up with her train of thought. JJ Feild (pretentious name, utterly pretentious website at http://jj-feild.com/drupal/node/291) gave an astounding performance in terms of the complexity of playing twin brothers, but was far too cold and charmless to bring it off convincingly and came across as a caddish lounge lizard for the majority of the evening, and seemed rather too taken with his own high opinion of his acting skills for his own good. The pro reviews, however (when they appear, this was a preview performance) will probably call him “the next Kenneth Branagh” or something similarly inane. I didn’t take to him as either a person or an actor. Belinda Lang was utterly wonderful as Isabelle’s mother, looking and sounding like a demented parrot on acid – in fact on several occasions I wondered whether she had acquired the skill of breathing through her ears. Joanna David (who lately played Jennifer Erhle’s aunt in the film version of “Pride and Prejudice) took on the rather thankless task of Capulet with great aplomb and, I was pleased to note on several occasions, actually walked like a slightly harassed Lady Companion (demonstrations available on request). Emily Bruni was first class as Lady India, with superb, crystal cut diction and projection meaning that every shade of every word could be heard right at the back of the auditorium. For this alone she deserves several dozen Brownie Points. The scene in which she danced the tango with Patrice (Andrew Havill) while delivering her lines in time with the beat was one of the funniest and cleverest things I have seen on stage in a long time – and in fact I started the round of applause at the end of it.

Costumes were pretty and inspired by the Dior “New Look” of the early 1950s, although putting two actresses in practically identical costumes when they have a marked physical resemblance is best avoided if one’s audience (i.e. me!) is not to get completely confused. The set was OK – basic but effective. It was supposed to represent the house’s Winter Garden (i.e. conservatory), but was bare of any kind of plant or furniture and looked cold, grotty and rather damp. In fact, it got very boring to look at after a while. The fact that the door frame seemed to have come adrift at a strange angle really didn’t help. I suppose it was bare so as not to distract attention from the performances, but I for one would certainly have welcomed slightly more visual appeal.

In summary, I enjoyed this production for its individual performances (and occasionally for the individual scenes) but lost grip on the story very quickly. It felt far too long and wordy, consisted of lots of talking and not a lot of action and, by the end, I was pleased to go home. Ironically, the author’s surname (Anouilh) is pronounced exactly the same as “ennui”, which is French for “boring”. Enough said. I predict a run of less than three months. Its just not the right kind of play for London just now. Oh – and I never did find out why its called “Ring Around the Moon”.

What the critics thought:


Anonymous said...

The original french title is, apparently, L'Invitation au Château (which makes more sense if I have actually understood anything of that complicated plot!).

Apparently Christopher Fry, who originally adpated it from the French 'had an epiphany while doing the London Times crossword. A verse from a song he had written a while back for a Cinderella
pantomime popped into his head: “We shall be wed/With a ring round the moon”.
Fry’s justification for this title was that “to see a ring round the moon was both magical and a little threatening”.'

Pretentious twaddle if you ask me


Russell said...

There you go, folks. The power of the internet!

I've never had an epiphany while doing the London Times crossword. Sounds painful. I did once manage to complete an entire clue, though!

rtb said...

Hi Its me the other=half
Love the review and you seemed to not enjoy it while we were there so it just shows after nearly 7 years i still dont know whats going on in the ole tick tick box up there.Couldnt agree more about the guy JJ Field !!!! Again I bemoan the lack of juve talent in the theatre at the moment. when you consider that the role was played in 1950 at the globe by Paul Schofield that tells you the weight of punch needed for the duasl role he could have been played a bit older and by someone really dynamic like Michael Sheen.
On a better note must say that Ms Button who played Isabelle and you failed to mention in your crit was very loverly finely spoken and looked ravishing in her frocks so the juves do have one great additiion at least. Maybe Sean Mathias was just casting mr field with his crotch as eye candy in the rehearsal room or maybe he just couch fodder casting
Only negative thing from this trip out is that at home now Im now referred to as the dilapilated Moth !!!!!!!!
When I is really a Sparkling Stud Butterfly of love and energy!!!!!!!
Oh the Charisma of Fame!!!!!!!!