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The False Servant

by on 14 June 2022

Money Can’t Buy

The False Servant

by Pierre Marivaux, translation by Martin Crimp

Orange Tree Theatre Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond until 23rd July

Review by Gill Martin

A tale of duplicity, avarice, sexual tension and generally bad behaviour is played out at a dizzyingly fast pace at the Orange Tree’s production of The False Servant.

The dialogue is delivered at machine-gun speed and is as devastatingly cutting in its outcome.

The intricately involved plot focuses on a personable young noblewoman known as The Chevalier (Lizzy Watts) who disguises herself a sharp-suited chap to expose the despicable motives of Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook).

Lelio is suave and cynical, not as smart as he thinks when pitted against Chevalier. He possesses no moral bone in his body as he chases a lucrative marriage, with love and loyalty merely collateral damage in his quest. 

Most of the rest of the characters in this re-worked French comedy are equally morally bankrupt.  Take Trivelin (Will Brown).  He’s a larger and louder than life character, a garrulous and grubby sort who has seen better days and now down on his luck thanks to a prison term for raiding a master’s wine cellar.

His raggedy clothes attest to his downfall.  He admits he has drunk himself into poverty but, as a wannabe philosopher, confides: ‘I’m not happy but quite happy not to be.’

He is full of sly asides to the audience, breaking the fourth wall a la Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag fame, and cheerfully reckons: ‘Deep down man is a piece shit.’

If you have any concern that this comedy of (bad) manners written in 1724 by Pierre Marivaux might not be your tasse de thé, you’ll be too busy laughing to care.

It’s hilarious thanks to its revamp and translation by the acclaimed playwright Martin Crimp, which bring it bang up to date.  Crimp made his name at the Orange Tree when it was sited above the next-door pub in Richmond back in the Eighties.

He works well with director Paul Miller, who incidentally is to step down as artistic director of The Orange Tree after his next season.   Miller succeeds in marrying sharp humour with double entendres.  The action is played out against designer Simon Daw’s abstract and foreboding set, dominated by a menacing green sculpture that could have come from Henry Moore on a bad day.

Love, marriage and morality take a back seat to pride, poverty, status, thwarted ambition and drunkenness.

It’s a clever piece of theatre, very French, where the elegant countess (Phoebe Pryce) could pass as a member of the French aristocracy with her aquiline nose and neatly coiffed dark hair.  So stylish, so willowy, she is the embodiment of the Duchess of Windsor’s assertion that ‘you can never to be too rich or too thin.’

The other players are also obsessed with riches, whether it’s enough francs for a bottle of wine or to bank roll their future with a disposable wife who can be dumped for the next even richer victim.

Gill Martin, June 2022

Photography by The Other Richard

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