Writers: Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble after Pierre de Marivaux
Directors: Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble
The Game of Love and Chance is the first major show in Arcola’s airy new space, Arcola Outside. It’s a good choice. Quentin Berold and Jack Gamble’s adaptation of Marivaux’s 1730 comedy is fast and funny, wittily updated to “a modern world of minor royals and major scandals”.
The play may be unfamiliar, but the plot is instantly recognisable: Sylvia is a minor royal (very minor – 58th in line to the throne). She’s a daddy’s girl who has no desire to get married. But Daddy, Lord Orgon, has fixed up for her to marry Dorante, the son of a wealthy friend, whom, in the way of comedy, she has somehow never heard of. She decides to steal a march on Dorante by swapping roles with Lisette, her loveable and lively maid, so she can give him the once-over.
And guess what? Dorante has decided on exactly the same ruse, swapping costumes and personalities with his driver Harlequin. The name “Harlequin” would be a dead giveaway – the play has its roots in classic Commedia dell’arte. So Dorante ends up being called Catflap. So that was the role of the comically elegant little cat flap in one of the set’s two posh doors – .
Catflap, aka Dorante, is played with smooth charm by Ammar Duffus. He enters, irresistible in his chauffeur’s suit and peaked cap, and Sylvie, now Lisette, (gorgeously performed by Ellie Nunn) is instantly smitten. The feeling is mutual, but Dorante knows he must keep up his role and delivers Love-Island-ready lines such as “I may be a driver, but I never take women for a ride”. By this point we know that Daddy and Sylvie’s brother Marius are in on both ruses and are determined to milk them until the posh couple are firmly united. David Acton plays Lord Orgon with smiling charm while George Kemp gives his all to the thankless role of nice-but-dim Marius – there is no romance in the air for him.
Enter the genuine chauffeur (Michael Lyle) impersonating Dorante. The comedy here is that he has taken liberties with his new role. The real Dorante is horrified to find himself portrayed as an outrageously brash chancer, squeezed into tight pink trousers, shamelessly showing off his cheesy dance moves. The fake Dorante gives a broad interpretation of his instructions to flirt with Sylvie. In no time he is trying to make a move on her too. Lisette, thoroughly enjoying playing her mistress, is no shrinking violet. We wonder how they’ll keep their hands off each other before the truth is revealed. If the play has a serious theme, it is what happens when love crosses social boundaries. But this comedy is at the wrong end of the eighteenth century, the French revolution not even a twinkle in the eye. There’s no danger of anyone marrying out of rank.
So the scene is set for an entertaining evening of rapid dialogue and comic misunderstandings. Marivaux was famous for his ‘marivaudage’ – his distinctive witty badinage. One feature of this was the squeezing metaphors until they squeaked. Beroud and Gamble confidently update this, the dialogue a constant stream of fresh, funny one-liners. “Don’t slaughter the golden chickens before they hatch!” exclaims Marius at one point. “The banter bus stops here!” There’s even a nice meta moment when Orgon happily announces that with “the seamless modernising of an eighteenth-century script” he can produce the clinching evidence in an email. We’d been told at the start of Sylvie’s “digital detox”, so this last-minute appearance of a mobile phone produces a shout of laughter in the audience.
Didi Hopkins is the Commedia dell’arte consultant on the show and together with choreographer Natasha Harrison, brings out the unrepentantly artificial nature of characters and action. Nunn, as the real Sylvie, is hilarious as both entitled socialite and professional maid, confiding her dilemmas to the audience. Lilly, however, is the real scene-stealer – an effortlessly funny performance of Lisette-as-Sylvie, the classic crafty maid of Italian comedy.
At times the play’s turn to physical comedy – much chasing around the sofa and opening and closing of doors – is more Feydeau than Commedia dell’arte. And the play itself never really offers an opportunity to explore the promised world of “minor royals and major scandals”. A shame, especially since Kemp has the chops to play a recognizable royal prince. But it’s a fun night out.
Runs until 7 August 2021