THEATRE: A load of old ballots

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The Independent Culture
The Candidate Royal Exchange, Manchester

Flaubert withdrew his play Le Candidat after only two performances out of compassion for his actors. Paul Godfrey has surveyed the wreckage of 1874 and believes that his new play, while inspired by the French master's, puts his players in no danger, even, presumably, from politicians - since the Royal Exchange's fairly safe gamble that their premiere production of The Candidate would coincide with the general election campaign has come off.

But the bet turns out to have been hedged, inasmuch as there is no superficial attempt to be of the moment. Godfrey sticks to 19th-century France, and the designer, Johanna Bryant, furnishes the stage accordingly, with such exact touches as the high metal gates with which the French bourgeoisie defend their property and propriety, and a bulbous Marianne statuette draped in the sash of liberte. Indeed, the carriage of all the men in Braham Murray's production illustrates how those sashes might have been designed precisely to show off the profile of political self-importance.

And it is the deluded pretentiousness of these politicians that we are meant to recognise as our own in these different clothes. The leading figure, Rousselin, is a self-made local worthy and benefactor who, to the initial consternation of both right and left - Colin Prockter's crusted "old leftie" Gruchet, and John Ringham's powdery aristo De Bouvigny - suddenly decides to stand for the Chamber of Deputies.

There are many advantages accruing to the office, not least that of being able to spend the winters in Paris, yet Rousselin begins with some higher motives. He is, however, soon overwhelmed by a mixture of pride and trepidation. Preparing for the public meeting, James Saxon practises a repertoire of smiles, postures and cravat arrangements. The ensuing catastrophe - in which the bluster of an answer to a question about the railways, which begins by invoking Charlemagne, is only exceeded by the revelation of his ignorance - does not prevent his being returned, largely because the editor of L'Impartial, who is also cuckolding him, does not let reality stand in the way of his story.

Yet Saxon's Rousselin is also a sympathetic figure, and the look of alarm on his face in his moment of triumph affords the evening's most significant moment. After enjoying the satire and sharpening our own cynicism, we would do well to be alarmed that this is democracy.

The message is Flaubert's own: that politics, which ought to be "the science of sciences", is given over to "special interests and passions... that are nothing but bourgeois".

But Paul Godfrey's version of it lacks edge and surprise. Even in James Saxon's portrayal, Rousselin's posturings remain predictable and there is too little wit in the lines.

The main plot, and the sub-plots surrounding Mme and Mlle Rousselin, are rudimentary, though one of them does give Nick Caldecott opportunity for an entertaining cameo as De Bouvigny's thistledown son.

The claque is not so cruel these days, but sadly the actors may still feel the indifference that comes of deja vu.

To 3 May. Booking: 0161-833 9833

Jeffrey Wainwright