Eternity Playhouse, June 16


The French have a flair for lightness. It aerates their cooking, from choux pastry to souffle, their music from Offenbach to Satie, and even their very language, with all those silent consonants. And of course it is especially prevalent in their humour, from Voltaire to Tati, with Moliere the godfather of them all. If we can only guess at the charismatic vibrancy of his acting, we do know that as a playwright it was not just his wit that was effervescent, but his satire and his broader comedy.

It is this lightness that seems to have gone missing in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of The Hypochondriac. Somewhere between Hilary Bell’s adaptation, Jo Turner’s direction and the actors’ performances a weight has descended on the work, so that too often the laughs feel laboured where they should be fizzing off the stage.

An irreverent and delicious farce where the old world meets the new. Argan is a needy and controlling patriarch of a household of women, and his hypochondria is the perfect means to keep them at his beck and call. But when his self-obsession extends to selling off his daughter in return for on-tap medical attention, his housekeeper Toinette decides it’s time to fight back. In this world premiere, Hilary Bell adapts Molière’s classic satire for  contemporary Australian audiences. The Hypochondriac critiques a society of overdiagnosis and over-prescription that has us clamouring for short-cut fixes and pharmaceuticals. The Hypochondriac is an hilarious farce for our times where all’s well that ends well and a little bit of sense triumphs over the unreasonable. At Darlinghurst Theatre Company / Eternity Playhouse, from 9 June - 1 July 2018. Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Lucia Mastrantone, Emma Harvie, Gabriel Fancourt, Jamie Oxenbould, Sophie Gregg and Monica Sayers Adaptation: Hilary Bell Director: Jo Turner Production Designer: Michael Hankin Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson Photo by Robert Catto, on Saturday, 9 June 2018. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.
Darren Gilshenan as Argan. Photo: Robert Catto.

That is not to say the production is exactly leaden. It offers many giggles and more smiles. If anything, Bell has increased the breadth of humour, albeit mostly at the lower end of the rectum, sorry, spectrum, with scatological and fart gags on a scale that might even test the taste of a child of six. While her adaptation – and it is very much that, rather than a translation – adds some laughs that are all her own, by and large the text is at its best the more faithful it is to Moliere.

At heart the play is primarily satirical in intent, the victims including Argan (the rich, selfish chronic hypochondriac of the title), the medical profession and drug industry. Moliere, who had long been sick when he penned the work, was actually playing Argan when he collapsed and died – and who better than a dying man to slip a stiletto between the plump-fleshed ribs of doctors and apothecaries!

Bell has enjoyed replacing Moliere’s pastoral song-and-dance interludes – an oddity of his 17th-century idiom – with mock pharmaceutical ads, although her intention with these was presumably more amusing than the current performance reality. She has steered the third act into full-throttle farce, and even over the cliff into Marx Brothers-like territory, but with the writing, directing and performances consistently falling just short in rapier-sharp lines, taut comic instincts, meticulous timing and rubber faces. Instead we have rubber faeces.

Anyone who saw Darren Gilshenan’s brilliance in John Bell’s 2007 production of The Government Inspector would expect him to be impeccably cast as Argan, and yet the upshot is adequate rather than scintillating. Jamie Oxenbould generates more laughs with a fully ripened Doctor Thomas Diafoirus (the appalling son of the cynical Doctor Diafoirus, played by Monica Sayers), whom Argan intends to wed his hapless, round-shouldered, pigeon-toed daughter Angelique (Emma Harvie), so as to have the Heaven of two quacks on tap in the family. Gabriel Fancourt has fun flitting between playing Cleante (Angelique’s true love), Bonnefoy the lawyer and Beralde (Argan’s brother), and Sophie Gregg is entertaining as Argan’s grasping, duplicitous wife. Perhaps Bell’s cleverest tweak has been to hoist Toinette, the quick-thinking, put-upon maid, into sharper focus as the pivot around which the action revolves, and Lucia Mastrantone is well cast for the purpose.

One senses that the running (if you’ll pardon me) pooh gags could be reduced, about 10 minutes cut and the pace accelerated. The latter may well happen as the season progresses, restoring some of the missing fizz. As the production stands the one area where the lightness and froth is eloquently expressed is in Philip Johnston’s music.

Until July 1.