Sick and tireless

Paul Taylor diagnoses a vimful 'Hypochondriac' as a success, but advises strong treatment for a feeble 'Comedy of Errors'
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The Independent Culture
To say of an evening in the theatre that the most enjoyable bit was the interval would not normally be considered much of a compliment. The case is somewhat different, though, with Edward Kemp's new adaptation of Moliere's The Hypochondriac at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The first half of Toby Jones's production struggles to rise above the merely decent. It's only when the audience moves out into the bar and foyer at half time that things liven up decisively. On a jokey platform stage and in French, the cast give a speeded up, cod commedia dell'arte performance of Moliere's Le Medecin volant or "The Doctor Flying" as our Eurovision- style interpreter puts it.

Why are the good people of Leeds being treated to this bizarre entertainment instead of being allowed to sip their drinks in peace? For sound dramatic reasons, as it happens. Le Medecin volant, one of Moliere's earliest plays, shows how a fake doctor and a feigned illness dupe an old man into providing his daughter with the conditions in which she can meet up with the lover he opposes. The Hypochondriac, Moliere's last work, shows how the title character, played here by Paul Shelley, is in thrall to the jargon-ridden mystifications of the medical profession and how it takes a genuinely fake doctor (so to speak) to bring this home to him.

It was Alan Drury in the early 1980s who originated the notion of inserting a fast version of Moliere's earliest doctor play into his final one. Carried off in Jones's staging with great panache, it creates the effect you would get in a production of The Tempest if, instead of laying on a masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero were to put on a quickie revival of Comedy of Errors in a manner that influenced the outcome of the main play. The performance of Le Medecin volant gives the maid in The Hypochondriac (attractively resourceful Ann Bryson) the idea for the disguise-scam she later pulls off.

From the interval onwards, the production's energy level never flags, the show culminating in a rum mock-induction of the hypochondriac into the medical profession. Appropriately, given the play's satire on patients taken in by the linguistic obfuscation of quacks, the chanted liturgy at the ceremony is a wonderfully nonsensical assemblage of Latin tags. As regards body language, the highlight of the evening is Tristan Sharps's hilarious routine as the servant in Le Medecin volant when he has to pretend to be the doctor and the doctor's estranged twin brother at the same time. The fight he stages with himself on the other side of an open window looks like a worryingly severe case of split personality.

It's funnier than anything in Ian Talbot's open-air production (in Regent's Park) of The Comedy of Errors, a play in which two sets of actual twins turn Ephesus into a mad house of spiralling confusion. This is a badly under-energised staging which also manages to coarsen and dilute the mood of wonder at the end where the reunions pre-figure those in Shakespeare's late romances. The nuns who periodically trot out of the abbey like the bird-equivalent in some Catholic version of a cuckoo clock sycophantically applaud the abbess during her 11th-hour pronouncements, adding to the atmosphere of camp evasion. Only Paula Wilcox, who arches her brows to great effect as the jealous, vampish Adriana, emerges with credit intact. My eight-year-old daughter, it's only fair to say, enjoyed the whole thing and, as a painless way of introducing children to Shakespeare, the show has its virtues. Adults on their own, however, may feel short-changed.

n 'The Hypochondriac', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-244 2111) to 22 June; 'The Comedy of Errors', Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London, NW1 (0171-486 1933) in rep to 7 Sept