Long ago in 1930s theatreland, girls were 'fast' and chaps were extremely slow. The fact that sex rarely if ever happened between them can be laid at the door of the English public school system, which encouraged young men to prefer each other's company. If anything more passionate than kissing did raise its ugly head, even off-stage, the Lord Chamberlain was always there to put a stop to it.
Terence Rattigan's first hit play French WIthout Tears is a product of these conventions. When sex was suddenly rediscovered in the 1960s and the Lord Chamberlain's malign influence over British theatre was abolished, his comedy must have seemed hog-whimperingly out of date. Now we know better.
In Paul Miller's delicious revival at the Orange Tree, the play still has elements of a period piece, but its strengths are evident, and it's obvious why the play made a fortune for Rattigan, which he promptly spent. Not only is it very well constructed, but it zeroes in on the emotional inadequacies of the English male in a way that the playwright was later to develop and make his own.
Monsieur Maingot's seaside villa on the French Atlantic coast houses several of these English males, struggling in time-honoured fashion to master a foreign language. Three of them are preparing exams to enter 'the diplomatic', as the Foreign Office was known. One is a naval officer, slightly older, and one is pragmatically trying to learn some French for business. Rattigan's jokes about speaking bad French still raise a predictable laugh, as do Shakespeare's in Henry V. But the real barrier between the characters has nothing to do with the English Channel/La Manche. The key figure is Diana Lake, the woman who provokes a tsunami of emotional turmoil among these adolescent chaps. Diana is not just fast, she is turbocharged like a Bugatti with what was known in the 1930s as 'sex appeal'. Genevieve Gaunt, on her stage debut, gives a wonderful masterclass in fake sincerity, confessing her undying love to one male admirer after another. She's a prick-teaser (an expression on which the Lord Chamberlain would have come down like a ton of bricks). Eventually the chaps start to see through Diana and her little ways, but the comic journey is a long and painful one.
Miller has found a splendid cast and has rightly avoided any attempt to update or adapt Rattigan's original. The dialogue is funny, the costumes are splendid, the characters spring to life, the timing is excellent, and nobody overacts more than they should. Rattigan, like Noel Coward, knew his craft and earned his money.