‘The Hypochondriac’ by Moliére, adapted by Richard Bean
Reviewed by Lee Farley at Malvern Theatres
“Go and see a play by Moliere? I’d rather have my feet cut off!” exclaims Tony Robinson’s Argan, the hypochondriac of the title, in one of the production’s attempts at post-modernism. I wouldn’t go that far, but there’s not much to recommend in this unsophisticated, laboured “comedy”.
Richard Bean is a prolific writer and adapter. His ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’ has had deserved success in the West End and on Broadway. His work usually explores Britishness, using older texts and his own new writing to examine what it means to be British in the 21st century. ‘The Hypochondriac’, in contrast, seems content to simply play for cheap laughs. It’s hard to believe this is by the writer of ‘Smack Family Robinson’ and ‘The English Game’, all of which are perceptive, witty and credible contemporary dramas. I couldn’t detect anything complex in this production; there’s no subtext, no ingenuity. The second half opens with a long lecture from Argan’s brother Beralde about seventeenth century medical practice. This is faithful to Moliére’s original, but entirely irrelevant to a modern audience, there’s nothing here to feed the intellect, no underdog to root for or contemporary parallels to chew over. In fact, a couple of moments – a reference to ‘poofs’ and a feeble, misguided impression of an Asian stereotype by Tracie Bennett’s maid Toinette – bear more resemblance to severely outdated 70s sitcoms like ‘Mind Your Language’.
The plot is familiar; father wants to marry daughter off to someone rich, rather than someone she loves. People disguise themselves to reveal truths. Moliére has one very specific target; he’s vitriolic and scathing about doctors and medical practice, but this isn’t the seventeenth century and those targets are long forgotten. Unless you think the NHS is still corrupt, influenced by God and ignorantly clinging to medieval ideas.
Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair direct with a hand firmly on the farcical. There’s pace and energy from the performers, but it’s relentless and crude, there’s no time to breathe or consider, there’s no let up in the buffoonery.
Most of the performances, including Tony Robinson’s Argan, are over-the-top and unbelievable. Imogen Stubbs brings a welcome subtlety to her role, but is relegated to a cameo. There are three ‘interlude’ songs, a technique Bean also uses in ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’, which are well performed and original, but slight.
I suspect your enjoyment of this production depends on your tolerance for poo and wee jokes. If your (expensive) night out at the theatre involves wanting to turn your brain off and revert to humour for 6-year-olds, then you might enjoy ‘The Hypochondriac’. If you’re looking for something more modern, sophisticated, challenging or innovative I’d suggest saving your money and giving this a miss.