TAKE a name like Francois Billetdoux and an image of famous actors Felicity Kendall and Simon Callow embracing, champagne flutes in hand, against a backdrop of Paris under blue skies, with the single word Chin-Chin, and you think you’re in for a frothy farce.
There might be a clue to this extraordinary play, which first saw the light of day in the 1950s, in one of the contemporary articles, discussing a current real-life case of a Parisian couple’s decline into criminal behaviour.
Perhaps Chin-Chin would fit more comfortably in the avant garde, Theatre of the Absurd, intellectual French model, rather than the more conventional style of Michael Rudman’s production, on a national tour and in Bath until Saturday 9th November.
Billetdoux was a committed Christian with a prominent social conscience, and so, if this had been directed by the same person who was responsible for David Haig’s Lear on the same Bath stage in the summer, it might have been described as a play about homelessness, as the productions had street sleepers in common.
Michael Taylor’s designs cleverly evoke the essence of Paris, and it all starts in a cafe when Cesareo Grimaldi first meets Pamela Pusey-Picq. She is buttoned-up English and she’s drinking tea. He is flamboyantly Italian and he is downing Scotch, two at a time.
Their spouses are involved in an affair.
Pamela is married to French doctor Adrian (always pronounced in the English Ay-dree-un way, rather than in the French style.)
Cesareo’s French wife is Marguerite, a childless woman who has consulted Dr Picq. She is described as voluptuous, beautiful and generally irresistible to men.
Paris might be the city of romance, but that is not what this play is about. It charts the downward spiral of two people whose only common link is played out offstage by their adulterous spouses.
As they sink further into alcoholism she loses her inhibitions and he gives away his successful company to the cleaning lady.
Their needy relationship stutters between longed-for love and uneasy companionship, veering from his maudlin accounts of his life in Italy to her bitter despair, clinging to her unfortunate son Bobby.
By the end she is living in a squalid hotel, he is on the streets haunting the apartment where Adrian and Marguerite have set up home, and both are reduced to petty theft to get their booze. The final opening up of a free, bright future is an illusion.
There is no doubt that Felicity Kendall and Simon Callow give terrific performances – she delicately navigating the decline of a prim and proper Englishwoman, he delighting in the strangeness of her name, and trying to be the sort of man he thinks she thinks he should be.
Michael Rudman is a renowned and highly experienced director, but in this production he seems to be inviting the audience to sort out what he thinks of the play. The acting style is that of farce, but while there are funny moments, a comedy this is not, nor one of those cinematic bitter-sweet French romances.