Scapin's Trickery | Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

There's a wonderful sequence near the end of Scapin's Trickery, in which Moliere's wily eponymous valet hoodwinks a ghastly skinflint geriatric into clambering into a sack to hide from entirely imaginary cut-throats. While acting out a vigorous fantasy scenario of stoutly defending this oldster, replete with bravura ventriloquial switches, Scapin takes the opportunity to thrash his victim black and blue. In Jean-Louis Benoit's spirited production, the sack is hoisted on to a pulley and makes preposterous pendulum swings so that the violence looks like the bizarre grudge-beating of an animated carpet.

There's a wonderful sequence near the end of Scapin's Trickery, in which Moliere's wily eponymous valet hoodwinks a ghastly skinflint geriatric into clambering into a sack to hide from entirely imaginary cut-throats. While acting out a vigorous fantasy scenario of stoutly defending this oldster, replete with bravura ventriloquial switches, Scapin takes the opportunity to thrash his victim black and blue. In Jean-Louis Benoit's spirited production, the sack is hoisted on to a pulley and makes preposterous pendulum swings so that the violence looks like the bizarre grudge-beating of an animated carpet.

The play, which has been brought to the Barbican by the Comedie-Francaise as part of the Paris Sur Scene festival, caps this joke twice. First, when the grotesque Geronte (Malik Faraoun) fearfully pops his head out of the sack and observes Scapin writhing on the floor in a solo orgy of multiple impersonation. Then, with barely a pause for breath, the old man is subjected to a further gross insult. The very picture of traumatised immobility, he is treated to an elaborate account of his own bamboozling which is delivered as a hysterical anecdote by a snorting young lady who doesn't know him from Adam.

The trouble in all this, though, is that by the time this succession of good gags finally arrives, you've almost forgotten what it feels like to laugh out loud.

The Comedie-Francaise once had a reputation for heavy, hide-bound traditionalism. My old French teacher used to dismiss the institution as "a lot of busts and statues - offstage and on".

In 1997, as part of a Gallic theatre season, London audiences had the first chance in 20 years to check the public image against the facts at an exquisitely astringent staging of Marivaux's Les Fausses Confidences. Now, though, in this comparatively lightning return, the company has chosen to regale us with a disappointingly slight piece.

Scapin's Trickery is an anthology of knockabout commedia dell'arte routines and stock types (their actors' faces here daubed in mask-like white pancake) and you would suspect that it came from the start of this playwright's career, were it not for the streak of middle-aged melancholy that afflicts the eponymous resourceful valet.

A harder-edged, less cultured precursor of Figaro, Scapin is excellently played by Gerard Girourdin, who alternates between laid-back superiority and manic energy, both betokening his disillusion at the world's ingratitude.

Scapin enjoys making his supposed betters beg for his services, a fact neatly illustrated here when Girourdin calmly walks off stage left, leaving his master gibbering. He then casually saunters back on from the other side, ready now to concede a connoisseur's measured interest in his plight.

Set in the port of Naples (all bobbing model galleons on silk seas) and propelled forward here by jokily melodramatic thunderclaps, the play focuses on two young chumpish heirs who have fallen in love with apparently unsuitable girls and now have to face the wrath of their fathers who have recently returned from trips abroad. The cast perform the slapstick with style and brio, proving that you can be light without being lightweight. But one would like to see them in a piece that played around with more than conventions. Too much of a shortish evening, it looks likely to appeal, in the main, to theatrical trainspotters.

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