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Billy Lake as Kenneth Lake and Saccha Dennis as Marianne in "French Without Tears"

David Cooper

2 out of 4 stars

Four young, privileged men are studying the language of love at Monsieur Maingot's villa in France. Then, there's Diana Lake.

"Is she learning French, too?" asks Lieutenant-Commander Rogers, a mature student who arrives on the scene at the start of French Without Tears.

"No. She just stops us from learning it."

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That's the situation for Terence Rattigan's 1936 comedy: A beautiful young vamp wrapping a group of baffled Brits around her finger, until they get wise and try, feebly, to seek revenge.

It could be an enjoyable romp, but director Kate Lynch's production simply misses the comedic mark for too long. There are a couple of weak performances, but more that are simply not funny enough. The delivery's too Shavian, when Rattigan's script is, well, closer to a situation comedy.

The audience, I suspect, is supposed to like the boys, or at least be amused by them, and find Rogers stuffy at first. Here, instead, company veteran Martin Happer's naval commander is the only sympathetic fellow in a sea of irritating, young toffs (Wade Bogert-O'Brien's smitten Kit excepted).

Robin Evan Willis certainly is magnetic as Diana, and sexy in an appropriately affected way; like the boys, she's still learning, even if they think she's a master of the sexual arts. As the Betty to her Veronica, Julie Martell is likeable, but also gets somewhat lost in the shuffle.

When Bogert-O'Brien and Happer get the stage alone and break into fisticuffs over Diana, French Without Tears begins to pick up. For a few scenes, you get a taste of what might have made the original production starring Kay Hammond, Jessica Tandy and Rex Harrison zing in the 1930s.

Alas, this production ends on a sour note when the final punchline becomes incomprehensible due to an error in casting and costume design.

French Without Tears

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  • Written by Terence Rattigan
  • Directed by Kate Lynch
  • Starring Ben Sanders, Robin Evan Willis
  • At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.


French Without Tears runs at Shaw's Royal George Theatre until Sept. 15.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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