Review: The Hypochondriac, Richmond Theatre

“Keep your sex and rock’n’roll
But leave the drugs, I’ll take them all”

Queer, faggot, poof, shirtlifter…it’s the kind of language that is thankfully becoming rarer in public discourse and yet, it still creeps in with an alarming regularity that means it will be a long time before it truly becomes verboten in a similar manner to the n-word. I raise this as Richard Bean’s recent playwriting is particularly guilty of this – Great Britain had multiple references (though with no published script, I can’t quote ‘em), Made in Dagenham had a handful of faggots and his version of The Hypochondriac features poofs and AIDS jokes, delivered without irony in front of a replica of Gilbert and George’s Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit.

The arguments are easily made – ‘oh, that is what people said in today’s tabloid offices/1970s factories/sixteenth century France’ – but the worry, for me, comes in the audience reaction and the legitimisation that is implicit in the inclusion of such language in a comedic environment. It is an assumption I’m making but it really doesn’t feel like the laughter that comes from a character being labelled a faggot or poof comes from a good place, or any kind of interrogation of what it means to use such words.

Which is pretty much where my mind was at whilst watching the latter stages of the curious Theatre Royal Bath production of The Hypochondriac at Richmond Theatre. Molière’s final work has been adapted into a scatological farce (a slightly terrifying prospect as a sub-genre) by Bean in a manner similar to that of One Man, Two Guvnors with musical interludes interspersed throughout. But where the skiffle-influenced songs of The Craze fit perfectly into the 60s world of that play, Richard Thomas’ songs – here delivered by a goth-like Andrew Bevis – have no contextual place in the 17th century world of the show.

Instead, they’re just window-dressing, setting the mainly puerile sense of humour (one of the songs is called ‘Blood in my Poo’) that governs the show as the neurotic Argan battles his hypochondria forever inspecting his bodily waste, the doctors who seek to take advantage with endless enemas and his scheming wife Beline who also has her eye on his fortune. With his sweet-natured daughter and canny maid on his side, there’s sadly little suspense or real dramatic interest about what turns out to be a rather workmanlike character for the inimitably charismatic Tony Robinson.

The real strength in Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair’s co-directed production ends up coming in little moments from the supporting roles and cameos – the pleasure of Imogen Stubbs’ reactive disdain as the grasping Beline, the manic energy of Tracie Bennett’s companion-like Toinette, the genuine emotion of Lisa Diveney’s Angelique who is equally exasperated and endeared to her father. There’s also an insane performance, which is also quite possibly brilliant, from Craig Gazey as an eminently unsuitable suitor for her hand which has to be seen to be believed.

But these flashes of interest are too few and far between, scattered amongst set pieces that go on too long (the improvised opera starts off well in that respect, as too does the enema scene) and the confused approach that the musical interludes provide. And whilst sat amongst an audience being enabled to titter at misguided AIDS jokes and guffaw at the mention of poofs, it all adds up to a most unsatisfactory theatrical experience indeed.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 29th November

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