Review: Tartuffe (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday October 22)

THE English Touring Theatre provide the proof/There’s life and laughs in Moliere’s Tartuffe. If you feared this comedy was going off/You’ll love the translation by Roger McGough.

Moliere’s infamous 17th Century French comedy about a scheming religious hypocrite and fraud who infiltrates a family who have generously taken him to their hearts and home is given an invigorating freshness in this hilarious new touring production, originally commissioned and produced in 2008 by Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres.

This is another gem in the Theatre Royal’s crown jewel of an autumn season: the ETT must be the best touring company in the country, but here they excel themselves, with not a single aspect of the flawless production disappointing – from the first class performances from the whole cast, to Ruari Merchison’s Versailles-inspired design, Gemma Bodinetz’s rich direction and Jacquie Davies’s glorious costumes, with each character given their own colour.

Originally written in rhyming couplets, the play has been adapted by the brilliant Roger McGough with skill, side-splitting humour, wit and unbelievably clever rhymes (for example, “What is it about this interloper/ that goads you into faux pas after faux pas?”, “Those same people drawn to where the cash is/extol the virtues of sackcloth and ashes” and – bringing the house down, “Than be Tartuffed by that two-faced actor/I’d rather remain virgo intacta.”). For the audience, some of the wily rhymes are well signposted, while others sneak up unexpectedly causing such mirth that you are in danger of missing the next verbal treat.

It is one of those classy productions that is almost critic-proof, blending the 17th Century satire and irreverence with a touch of one of Ernie Wise’s ‘plays wot I wrote,’ some anachronistic delights, and a side-splitting running gag involving English sayings (such as, “’Ogs might take to ze air”).

The cast (with the exception of Colin Tierney’s magnificent distinctly unholy philandering imposter, who speaks only in “leaden prose”) tease the audience with the verse, with tongues in cheek and glints in eyes, but the art is that the production never once becomes self-indulgent, or adult pantomime.

Praising any one performer is difficult, as all are so good: but it’s great to savour everyone from Joseph Alessi’s gullible Orgon to Ilan Goodman’s camp vision in purple Damis and Annabelle Dowler’s down to earth maidservant Dorine – those cast members not mentioned should take it that they are all worthy of the highest praise.

This Tartuffe is in so many ways a masterclass and a masterpiece – sheer perfection and another in this glorious season for which you need to kill for a ticket.

David Guest