- The Arts Theatre, London. Opening night: Wednesday, 23rd January, 1957.
Character: Gérard Barbier
- The attic of Gérard’s house in Paris.
- Early one evening in Lens.
- A suit in a hotel on the Coté d’Azur.
- Three weeks later. Morning.
- The same. Two hours later.
- Time – The present.
The characters seemed to be such happy, successful lovers in ‘No Laughing Matter’, that when the mood changed the shock must’ve been deep.
The strength of this amusing comedy lies in its basic firmness of approach; in the goal the author had in mind of showing the audience that such goings-on as he depicts so wittily and ingeniously, are not a subject for entertainment only. So as well as a bright story about love, written with enormous competence, there is a moral tale.
Purely as entertainment, it’s all the better for this. The humour had an edge of reality; the situations in which the two couples become involved were rooted in life, and not merely personal episodes with no outside connections; and individually the characters were interesting as human beings.
On the surface of things this was just another story of the eternal triangle (in duplicate), but the author was so clever with his characterisation that a whole philosophy emerged. However, audiences were encouraged to take the play as they pleased, since the author knew how to amuse on an easy level, and how to leave the lesson to those who wished to listen to it.
Translated from French into English, Armand Solacrou’s comedy (originally entitled ‘Histoire de Rire’) deals with two married women, their husbands and their lovers.
In the opening scene, 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 been meeting with her lover, Lancelot Berenson (Alec McGowen) – a miserable mouse of a man – at her and Gérard’s
home to make plans to elope themselves 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 action will have on others.
PETER (center) 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 given to 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 learned that she’s left him. Gérard, however, is heartbroken when he learns of his wife’s betrayal.
Meanwhile, Jean-Louis and Hélène Donaldo (Faith Brookes), who has left her husband to elope 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, 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 –their idyllic happiness is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Hélène’s wily husband, Gilles (Anthony Ireland), who has decided to use reverse psychology when he calls on his wayward wife and Jean-Louis. He surprises both of them by talking calmly about their elopement. Cunningly, he sows seeds of doubt in their minds, knowing full well that Jean-Louis will then quarrel with Hélène and leave her with no other course but to return home to him.
⇐ Addy after she returns to Gérard.
The author’s brief implied comment that a lack of religion was the cause of an increase in infidelity and, consequently, unhappiness, hardly needed such a serious presentation, even if the lesson was underlined in the end by the sound of a single gunshot signifying a suicide.
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 bang up to date. It wasn’t as if there had to be 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 duplicate!), but the author had been so clever with his characters that a whole new viewpoint emerges. Although billed as a ‘Comedy’, there were many moving pieces as well as comic ones – all of which were played with superb 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 changes dramatically, and it’s now that the audience see that what previously seemed so amusing is really both tragic and heart-breaking.
By engaging the audiences’ feelings, this comedy 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 he was able to capture the Coté d’Azur atmosphere brilliantly.
Other things, however, weren’t quite as successful. Paul Daneman, it was said, brought “polish and charm”, but there was neither “poetry nor passion in his performance”.
Brenda Bruce was “nowhere near as 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…”
“Of the two young men, PETER WYNGARDE succeeds in looking pretty French (with all that implies)…” The Spectator
“PETER WYNGARDE is much better as the husband who cannot believe that cuckoldry could happen to him.” Manchester Guardian
One critic at the time commented that, perhaps, ‘No Laughing Matter’ bore the imprint of having been written over twenty years earlier, 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.”
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