The False Servant at the Orange Tree Theatre review: Lively production rarely does justice to play’s nuances

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Lizzy Watts as the Chevalier  (The Other Richard)
Lizzy Watts as the Chevalier (The Other Richard)

Gender, morality and finances all prove fluid in Marivaux’s intricately scathing 18th century comedy. The story of a noblewoman who assumes male disguise to take control of her destiny and becomes an object of fascination to both men and women harks most obviously back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Martin Crimp’s sly 2004 translation feels bang up to the minute today, though, not just for its attitude to gender. “Where’s morality?” asks Lizzy Watts as the unnamed heroine known only as the Chevalier, while all around her jockey for money or advantage. Well, quite. Plus ça change…

Paul Miller’s production is lively and amusing but skims the surface of both Marivaux and Crimp. We first meet Will Brown as Trivelin, an archetypal, garrulous servant who’ll do anything for a franc. Brown plays the audience well but Trivelin’s sexual aggressiveness – when he finds he’s serving a woman – is queasily fudged.

Watt’s Chevalier initially dons her natty, dove-grey, 30s-style man’s suit to check out Lelio (Julian Moore-Cook), whom she’s due to marry. Wouldn’t you know it: Lelio’s an amoral fortune-hunter, who importunes the Chevalier to seduce a haughty Countess (Phoebe Pryce) to whom he’s become engaged and financially bound. Layers of complexity and duplicity ensue, including a subplot that just doesn’t work here, involving another servant who equates love, cash and wine.

Lizzy Watts as the Chevalier and Will Brown as Trivelin (The Other Richard)
Lizzy Watts as the Chevalier and Will Brown as Trivelin (The Other Richard)

The performances in Miller’s production are broadly amusing but not remotely grounded in reality. The actors show us the story, with knowing winks and asides, rather than feeling it. Designer Simon Daw unsubtly supplies a maze-like floorcloth and a canopy of twining foliage above. This show is not a revolutionary renaissance of a French text, like Crimp’s recent, exquisite reworking of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac with James McAvoy and director Jamie Lloyd.

Watts is a charming, feisty lead but makes little attempt to suggest her character’s masculine side beyond sticking her hands in her pockets and adopting an “oi, woss your game?” accent. Pryce is insipidly minty, Moore-Cook over-the-top. Brown’s swaggering Trivelin feels too big for this intimate venue; the other servant characters, too small.

Miller’s production rarely does full justice to the complexity or the nuance of the text. When it does, it’s blissful. Lelio, trying to determine the Chevalier’s gender, threatens her with a duel. “I see blood on a regular basis…” she nonchalantly replies. A flirtation between the Chevalier and the Countess hinging on the word ‘maybe’ is sublime. But there’s desperately clunky stuff towards the end, some of it Marivaux’s, some of it Miller’s directorial conceit.

Despite the failings, it’s a mild delight to tune into the language and hear the rarely-revived Marivaux and Crimp striking sparks off each other. There’s also a pleasing synergy in Miller, who is to step down from running the Orange Tree after his next season, working with Crimp, who made his name as a playwright in the theatre’s earlier incarnation above the pub opposite in the 80s.

Orange Tree Theatre, to July 23; orangetreetheatre.co.uk

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