17 March 2008

The Baker's Wife - TEPOS @ The Bob Hope Theatre, Saturday 15th March 2008


The café of a small Provençal town in the mid-1930s. . Denise, the wife of the proprietor, sees the same faces every day, but sometimes, things can happen that change you, making life different and new. Bits of conversation are heard from the customers - complaints from a gardener who's neighbor's tree is shading his spinach, an argument between the local priest and the school teacher who has been teaching that Joan of Arc "thought" she heard voices. Those bickering tell each other that their lives would be that much better "If It Wasn't for You". Through it all is the anticipation of the arrival of the baker: the village has been without bread since the last baker died and tensions have run higher than normal.

The Marquis enters with his three "nieces" and welcomes the new baker, Aimable Castagnet. Accurately named, he is a jolly, middle-aged fellow. With him is Geneviève, young and beautiful, whom the Marquis mistakes for his daughter. The error quickly addressed, it is not met without comment from the townspeople. With Pompom, the cat, the couple make for their new home, with the customers exchanging comments about the baker robbing the cradle .The villagers are pleased with the return of bread to the small town. They argue about their place in line in the small shop, eager to sample the wares of the new baker. Others, gossip about the Marquis and his nieces, and one of the villagers asks Aimable how an old man like him was able to snare the beautiful Geneviève, who sings of her past affair with Paul, a married man, and her love for Amiable. Closing the door on her past, she resolves to be a good wife to the baker.

While picking up the Marquis' pastry order, his driver, Dominique, eyes Geneviève, mistaking her for the baker's daughter. She corrects him, but he insists on addressing her as Mademoiselle. Amiable returns after trying to find Pompom and reports that the cat has run off.

The villagers gather again outside the café, engaged in their typical squabbles. The baker and his wife arrive and sit near Antoine who continues to tease them about the difference in their ages. Geneviève exits in a huff, leaving the men to tell each other to "Look For the Woman" when they start fighting. The baker and his wife gett ready for bed. Dominique and his guitar-toting friend Philippe plot to serenade her in the street. Geneviève castigates Dominique, but he is undeterred. Though she protests, she is unable to resist Dominique, and they decide to run off together.

The neighbors are awakened to a fire in the bakery's oven where the baker finds charred loaves. Usually Geneviève is the early riser of the household, and he begins to search for her, believing that she has gone in search of Pompom. A crowd begins to gather: they know Aimable's search will yield neither cat nor wife.

The Marquis arrives and takes the baker aside, telling him that Geneviève had run off with Dominque.. Philippe arrives and confirms the story, but Aimable chooses to believe that Geneviève has gone off to visit her mother. As the gossip continues, the Marquis threatens going to the police to report his stolen car, and the two lovers would be arrested. The gossipers decide that the situation is the "best thing to happen in this town in all my life!"

The teacher and the priest argue again: the priest accusing the villagers of contaminating Geneviève with their immoral conduct, the teacher championing free will. The typically sober baker orders a cognac, and another, and sings to the cafe that Geneviève has just gone to visit her mother. In an attempt to sober him up, they follow him into the bakery, only to find it in a sad state. Aimable collapses amongst the spilled flour, dough hanging from the ceiling, and burnt loaves of bread.

The villagers come to the decision that the town is cursed and they blame the baker's wife for the burdenThe Marquis enters, telling Aimable that he needs some "Feminine Companionship" and offers to loan his nieces. The girls surround the baker, flirting with him. The priest enters and, shocked, begins feuding with the Marquis. The villagers join in the fray, and the baker throws them all out.

At a town meeting Aimable admits that he knows that Geneviève has run off. He leaves the church, and the villagers vow to find his wife. Antoine enters claiming that he has found the young couple at a hotel in a nearby town. They agree to form a search party, and the Marquis, the priest, and the teacher go after the outcasts to persuade the baker's wife to return home. Left behind, the women of the town comment bitterly.

Geneviève and Dominique are together, but all is not well. She admits her passion for the young man, but gathers her things and leaves him asleep. The villagers encounter Geneviève and they eventually convince her to return. She finds Aimable and attempts to tell him the truth, but he chooses to believe that she has returned from visiting her mother and offers her dinner. Pompom arrives at the window, and Aimable bitterly harangues the cat for running after "some tom that looked good in the moonlight." He unleashes all of his pent-up anger toward Geneviève on the small cat, and offers it a saucer of milk. He has faithfully refilled the milk each day, and, when Aimable charges that the cat will run off yet again, Geneviève assures him that she will not. Reconciled, the two begin to prepare the bread for the next day. Their feuds ended, the villagers resume their everyday lives.

Set in a small French village during the 1930’s, somewhere between the locations of Chocolat (the plot of this and The Baker’s Wife share a lot of similarities, and I must check to see which was written first!) and Allo Allo, this show was, on the face of it, an unusual choice for an amateur company. It doesn’t have a very high recognition factor and is therefore not really a “bums on seats” show like, say, My Fair Lady is. But I hope the company were mollified by the audience appreciation of their efforts rather than disappointed at the lack of tickets sold. It’s a simple show, about relationships and their effects, and indeed the village itself becomes a strong character, rather in the same way that Anatevka is in Fiddler on the Roof. It was a bit of a shock to see so few people on stage – times were (not that long ago) when I appeared with the company and there were at least double the number in the cast; in fact, I think for Pirates of Penzance we had about sixty people on stage. However, the show works very well in a small venue with a relatively small cast, and adds to the feeling of intimacy.

The one set was quite simple but nonetheless effective, in warm colours appropriate for the location, although I did think that the railings of the balcony were set too low for comfort, as both the baker and his wife had to lean forward quite a way several times in order to put their hands on the rail. I have to take issue also with the use of a stuffed toy cat (and not a particularly realistic one at that – it looked like it was hiding a loo roll under its fur). Surely a real one in a cat basket would have been more effective? The cat isn’t on stage for long, and I’m sure that, with a dose of Mogadon (Moggiedon?), a sufficiently docile and amiable one could have been held by the cast members when necessary for the plot.

The orchestra was nicely handled by Alan “Smashie” Thompson in the pit, and was unobtrusive when necessary, something other MD’s of amateur companies (and some professional ones) would do well to emulate.

Sue Wooton was fab as Denise, the rather faded wife of the café owner, and her warm toned singing voice fitted the role perfectly. The stalwart Marion Terry, always a safe pair of hands, was wonderfully starchy as Therese the village spinster, and Bud Abbott hilarious as Domergue (in fact, all that was missing in his dialogue was either “It is I, Le Clerk” or “Non, non, non, non, non, non….er..oui” and he could have stepped out of Allo Allo or La Curee de Dibley, at which point the audience would probably have collectively wet themselves with hysterics). Rose Walker gave an empassioned performance as Hortense, the butcher’s wife who decides to take control of a life ruined by domestic violence, bringing to mind one of the sub-plots of Chocolat.

Sorry, everyone else, but Chris Betterton as the Village Priest deserves (and therefore gets) an entire paragraph of praise all to himself. He was perfectly cast (I did hear a rumour that he only got the part because he already had the costume in his wardrobe but I don’t believe it for a minute) and was a complete joy to watch as he wobbled between unctuous complacency and fury, with every nuance of his emotions caught perfectly on his face. I think Derek Nimmo would be proud! It used to be said of some performers that they had “comedy feet” – well, Chris has comedy hands, and I would quite happily have sat through his performance again.

Richard Cooper was very good as Dominique and his voice was excellent – a pure ringing tenor that will stand him in good stead should he decide to hit the Gilbert and Sullivan circuit in years to come, although his somewhat awkward body posture does need work, and it will be a while yet before he has the acting maturity to play roles like Colonel Fairfax in Yeoman or Tololler in Iolanthe.

Both on top form were Chris Arden as the Baker and Nicola Henderson as the eponymous wife. Chris was perfectly cast for the role, with his warm personality shining through, although he seemed a little unsure at times exactly how to pronounce the name of his wife. Being a Frenchman, it should have been Szhon-Vee-Ef rather than the English Jennie-Veeve which slipped out a couple of times, as did a rather strange hybrid version pronounced Jen-Vee-Ef. Nicola Henderson blew me (and Him Indoors) away with her vocal ability . At times she seemed a little “absent” but it is a difficult part to play – it’s a “cypher role” – things happen to her and around her rather than through her influence on the plot.

All in all, a really good night out watching people I know entertain people they know in a production as warm and comforting as bread fresh from the oven.

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