The Miser with Lee Mack and Griff Rhys Jones
A 349-year-old French farce doesn’t seem to have mass appeal written all over it. But thanks to a starry comic cast led by Lee Mack and Griff Rhys Jones and a very loose adaptation by golden-touch director Sean Foley, Molière’s The Miser certainly isn’t tight-fisted with the laughs.
Much comes from the playful breaking of the fourth wall, particularly from stand-up veteran Mack, forever teasing the audience. And the other three walls look vulnerable, too, as the action is set in the crumbling Parisian pile of wealthy but parsimonious Harpagon, whose own physical state mirrors the decay around him.
Nonetheless he has designs on marrying the delightful Marianne, a fraction of his age, unaware that his son, the preening, powdered popinjay Cléante has also fallen for her. Harpagon has other plans for his offspring, designed to protect and enhance his beloved fortune: Cléante is to wed Marianne’s crone of a mother, and his daughter Elise is to be betrothed to Monsieur Anselme, despite her clandestine love for apparently lowly manservant Valère. Add in a hidden strongbox full of gold coins and you have all the farcical elements you could hope for.
The premise is pure Carry On Up The Ancien Regime, and often with the puns and double entendres to match. Katy Wix – Mack’s erstwhile Not Going Out co-star – is all breathless heaving bosoms, and not a little dim-witted, as Elise. Ryan Gage, the one lead actor probably not already known to comedy fans, is the epitome of flamboyant camp as Cléante, often stealing scenes from more established comic names. Though it’s a tight-fought competition.
In the title role, Rhys Jones, more latterly known as an avuncular TV host, reminds us of the precision-timed, perfectly over-emphasised comic delivery which made his name all those years ago. The unearned haughtiness with which he dictates his immutable opinions at perfect odds to his hilariously grubby appearance.
This is Mack’s first play of any kind, though the role of multitasking servant Maitre Jacques isn’t far form his stand-up persona of the cheeky, feckless working-class chancer. Most the key actors here have live comedy experience, but no one quite knows how to ad lib and play to the stalls like him. And is that Tommy Cooper he’s channelling in the hat routine, or a Moliére original?
Fringe favourite Ellie White is memorable, too, as the super-privileged Marianne, poshly-spoken to the point of incomprehension, while Mathew Horne is comparatively restrained – although that is a very relative term with these larger-than-life performances – as Valère.
There’s a touch of One Man, Two Guv’nors (itself an 18th Century revival) in the comically self-conscious spirit that pervades the knockabout farce, while Foley seems to have learned a thing or two from The Play That Goes Wrong, too, with mishaps both by accident and design built into the action.
It seems a little miserly to point out that initially some of the broad grotesques don’t go beyond their one-dimensional pantomime caricatures or that the repeated reliance on knowingly anachronistic lines about ‘austerity measures’, ‘boom and bust ‘ and ‘trickle-down economics’ is overused. But it’s not too long before the pace picks up, and the cast relax into the performance – this was high-stakes press night after all – and the second half, especially, fair zips by.
Never mind the labyrinthine plot and its oh-so convenient resolutions, The Miser then finds it feet as a talented ensemble of comedy titans just having a laugh on stage. Then the audience in their seats aren't far behind.
• The Miser is at the Garrick Theatre, booking until June 3. Tickets.
Review date: 13 Mar 2017
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett