THE versatile and talented Frome Drama company has chosen Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses for its first show of 2022 at the Merlin.
Loosely translated from the epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos in 1982, it is a story of love, sex, revenge, jealousy and sophisticatedly complex plotting. It requires enormous skill both from its director and actors and from its designers and back-stage team. It is a real challenge for amateur companies.
The challenge for director John Palmer and his team was exacerbated by the twists and turns of Covid and its sly variants, from the first to the last. It did give the team longer than usual to create the magnificent costumes and the innovative set, as Palmer describes it in his programme notes.
It is a pity that no-one noticed along the way that the stylish idea for rotating triagonal flats – allowing black, white or mirrored backgrounds – also meant that set changes took far, far too long. With a full-sized bed to be brought on from the back of the stage by a troupe of set changers, some of whom where in costume for the show and some in black, resulted in an irritatingly long period of on-stage activity between sometimes comparatively short scenes.
Perhaps it was those delays that seemed to suck energy from the actors, so that what should have been quick-fire exchanges of often scurrilous ideas and urgent seductions all too often ran out of gas.
Serena Dunlop, as the soon-no-longer-to-be- virginal Cecile, alone overcame this lethargy, giving a sparkling and charmingly energetic performance.
Sue Ross’s Merteuil looked disconcertingly like Lesley Duncan, who originated the role in 1985. The director should have been more careful not to point her towards the back of the stage for her quieter moments, as many of the audience had problems hearing, and Merteuil has some of the very best lines in the play.
Her co-plotter and former lover Valmont is played by popular Frome actor Laurence Parnell, whose strength is in intense and realistic interpretations of complex roles. Many of his speeches had that quiet intelligence, but Valmont needs exceptional physical charisma as well as boundless energy.
Polly Lamb has the difficult role of Tourvel, the “chaste and religious married woman” Valmont is pledged to seduce.
It was a nice touch to have Timothy Lloyd on stage, playing Couperin on the harpsichord, and did provide some distraction from the set changes.
It seems hard to criticise people who have worked so hard for so long on this production, but someone really should have seen the wood for the trees.