Review: How to be very, very French

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The Independent Culture
IN DEFERENCE to the Parisian subject of the show, they are selling Pernod for pounds 1 a shot at the Watermill, Newbury.

Not that you need a droplet of alcohol to be intoxicated by the atmosphere of John Doyle's witty and rousing revival of the mid-1950s musical, Irma la Douce. As with the recent Chichester reclamation of Cole Porter's Nymph Errant, much of the charm of this production comes from the resourceful, tongue-in-cheek way it scales down a mainstage musical to the proportions of a more intimate venue. Here, the delectably diminutive Watermill, with its wrap-around galleries and inbuilt heightened sociability, has been converted into a comically cod version of a louche Pigalle cafe, the sleazy Gauloise-befugged haunt of the poules (tarts), and their mecs (pimps) and the bent flics (police) who batten down on both.

The underworld-cabaret feel is perfect for this piece, where in a droll variation on the idea of the eternal triangle, the eponymous prostitute's lover, impoverished law-student Nestor, doubles in bearded disguise as her elderly client, Oscar, who is supposedly financing the relationship. It's the same tired and frayed bundle of 10,000 francs that keeps changing hands. Acting as mistress of ceremonies for the evening is Karen Mann's magnificently disreputable Madame Bobi, a humpbacked, raddled crone with a filthy complicitous glint in her eye and a fag in her mouth that's like an extra limb. Resembling some ungodly Gaelic cross between Julie Walters's Mrs Overall and one of Kathryn Hunter's more contorted old biddies, she differs from your average compere in demonstrating that she can also play a mean trumpet.

Indeed, it's a huge boost to the high-spirited, hand-to-mouth atmosphere of this staging (where the story is told in a calculatedly reckless, improvised manner) that there's no division between the cast and the band. A versatile company of eight play all the parts and all the musical instruments, the latter at times serving as puckishly obscene props. After watching the presentation of the song "She's Got the Lot" ("A pretty mouth that travels South/A special brand of helping hand"), you won't be able to view percussion with quite the same innocence ever again.

A performer such as Jeremy Harrison darts energetically from trombone to banjo, guitar and double bass, and the band conjures up some beautiful simple textures (the dark threading, say, of a clarinet through the melancholy wash of an accordion) as it conveys Marguerite Monnot's beguilingly Parisian score.

The musical falls apart slightly in the second half, and no one could accuse its central a deux version of the menage a trois of being a sharp study, a la Pinter's The Lover, of schizoid sexuality. But the English book and lyrics have some agreeably adroit word-play (exhausted from his double life, Simon Walter's appealing, open Nestor complains that he doesn't get paid "Casan-overtime" and rhymes "wreck of a mec" with "walking on my knees like Toulouse Lautrec"). And the production is lifted by the energy and warmth of Josephine Baird's Irma. As they say in French: formidable!

To 25 Sept (01635 46044)