REVIEW: No Laughing Matter

  • The Arts Theatre, London. Opening night: Wednesday, 23rd January, 1957.

Character: Gérard Barbier

Act 1

  • The attic of Gérard’s house in Paris.
  • Early one evening in Lens.

Act II

  • A suit in a hotel on the Coté d’Azur.
  • Three weeks later. Morning.

Act III

  • The same. Two hours later.
  • Time – The present.

Translated from French into English, Arman Solacrou’s comedy (originally entitled ‘Histoire de Rire’) deals with two married women, their husbands and their lovers.

Gérard Barbier (PETER WYNGARDE) is absolutely delighted when his best friend, Jean-Louis (Paul Daneman), tells him that he’s been having an affair with a married woman, and is about to elope with her. In typical male fashion, Gérard brings up every conceivable moral and philosophical argument in support of his friends action; actively encouraging him to go ahead with his plan.

In the meantime, Gérard’s wife Addy (Brenda Bruce), has also been meeting with her lover, Lancelot Berenson (Alec McGowen), at the home she shares with Gérard’s, and is making plans elope herself that evening. Lancelot, however, doesn’t share Addy’s heartless enjoyment of danger for its own sake, and begins to get cold feet. He tells her that he’s concerned about the effect their actions will have on Gérard and their other friends.

LAUGHING

⇐ PETER (centre) as Gérard, with Brenda Bruce as Addy and Paul Daneman as Jean-Louis.

The arguments that Gérard made earlier take on a different colour when he finds a photograph of his wife, which she’d asked family friend, Jean-Louis, to pass on to her husband after she’d left with Lancelot. She’d hoped that her angry husband would tear it to pieces when he learns that she’d left him. Gérard, however, is heartbroken when he discovers his wife’s betrayal.

Meanwhile, Jean-Louis and Hélène Donaldo (Faith Brookes), who has left her husband to abscond with him, feel that they can enjoy their happiness without any feelings of guilt.

With so much heartbreak and upheaval, all the couples and their lovers decided to meet at a hotel on the Coté d’Azur to work out their problems; happily for the most part, but tragically for one of the lovers, who takes romance a little too seriously.

After talking through their differences, Addy decides to return to the arms of her husband, Gérard, who’s been driven crazy with grief at her running away. Now she’s back, he tries to put the nightmare behind him and indulges in light-hearted banter with her about the happy times they spent together in the early days of their marriage.

As for Jean-Louis and Hélène – they’re ideally happy until the unexpected arrival of Hélène’s wily husband, Gilles (Anthony Ireland), who has decided to use reverse psychology when he calls on his errant wife and her lover. He surprises both of them by talking calmly about their elopement. Cunningly, he sows seeds of doubt in their minds, he knows full well that Jean-Louis will quarrel with Hélène and leave her with no other course but to return home to him.

Laughting4Jean-Louis carries out Addy’s instructions and hands the photograph to Gérard ⇒

IN RETROSPECT

It was at long last that London gave some recognition to Amand Salacrou, and as with such cases at the time, it was the forward-thinking Art’s Theatre that brought the backward-looking West End up to date. It wasn’t as if there’d been much pioneering spirit on show, given that ‘No Laughing Matter’ had been running in Paris for almost three years by the time it hit the London stage.

On the surface, ‘No Laughing’ Matter seems like another story of the eternal triangle (in triplicate!), but the author had been so clever with his characters that a whole new viewpoint emerged. Although billed as a ‘Comedy’, there were many moving pieces as well as comic ones – all of which were played with polish.

Salacrou’s comedy has invariably been described by theatre-goers as a more heart-felt version of ‘Private Lives’; a bit more serious, too, as the French tend to take marital infidelity rather more seriously than we Brits. Certainly, the play started cheerful enough, but soon turned brittle and heartless. In the second half, the mood changed dramatically, and it was then that the audience got to see that what had previously seemed so amusing is really both tragic and heart-breaking.

LAUGHING3⇐ Addy after she returns to Gérard.

By engaging the audiences’ feelings, this play proved to be so much deeper and interesting than any British play on marital relations. Critics at the time described Salacrou’s wit as “keen and civilised”, and his style “fluent and assured”. “He combines the wisdom of a philosopher with the inventiveness of a genuine comedy writer”, Plays and Players suggested.

If there was one criticism of the play, it was that Peter Wood’s production, although subtle and balanced, was often coy when really it should’ve been cruel. His lighting and Paul Mayo’s sets were superb by all standards, and it was said that he managed to capture the Coté d’Azur atmosphere brilliantly.

Other things, however, weren’t quite as successful. Paul Daneman, one critic uttered, brought “polish and charm”, but there was neither “poetry nor passion in his performance”.

Brenda Bruce was “nowhere near cruel or heartless enough”, and Faith Brook as Hélène “was rather too matter-of-fact”.

And what about PETER. Well, he stood out for special praise from most critics. F.B.G. of Plays and Players described him thusly: PETER WYNGARDE manages to forget his Anglo-Saxon reserve and gives full life and conviction in his portrayal as the outraged husband.”

The Sunday Times commented in their 27th January, 1957 issue: “…Mr PETER WYNGARDE handles this woman’s husband of his volatile temperament…”

One critic at the time commented that, perhaps, ‘No Laughing Matter’ bore the imprint of the time it’d been written (1930’s), and that it might not therefore command success in the West End proper. He was right, but added that the play was both “entertaining and adult”.


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

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