The malady lingers on

The Hypochondriak | Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture

The satirical vigour, linguistic gusto and serio-comic contrasts of Moliÿre's plays have lent them a particular appeal for Scots translators and adaptors in recent years, with Liz Lochhead's 1985 Tartuffe remaining the most celebrated exemplar of this trend. Hector MacMillan's version of Moliÿre's last work, Le Malade Imaginaire (in a bizarre ironical twist, the playwright was appearing as the eponymous lead, Argan, when he was taken fatally ill), is of similar vintage, having been successfully premiered - also at the Lyceum - two years later.

The satirical vigour, linguistic gusto and serio-comic contrasts of Moliÿre's plays have lent them a particular appeal for Scots translators and adaptors in recent years, with Liz Lochhead's 1985 Tartuffe remaining the most celebrated exemplar of this trend. Hector MacMillan's version of Moliÿre's last work, Le Malade Imaginaire (in a bizarre ironical twist, the playwright was appearing as the eponymous lead, Argan, when he was taken fatally ill), is of similar vintage, having been successfully premiered - also at the Lyceum - two years later.

It's hardly as if our interest in health and medicine has declined since then, and yet Tony Cownie's production somehow misses the mark thematically, the contemporary liberties he and MacMillan both take with the original failing to overcome a sense of historical distance from its central concerns. A key problem is the uneven pitch of the acting, which features several strong individual turns, but little in the way of ensemble fluency.

Sylvester McCoy as Argan, the wealthy supposed invalid whose endless imagined ailments make him easy prey both for unscrupulous quacks and his scheming wife, gives a suitably crotchety, querulous performance, punctuated with prodigious farts and leavened with knowingly mischievous glances. He projects the character at insufficient scale or volume, however, to hold the centre as he should, whereas Andy Gray, by contrast, playing a trio of comic grotesques, grandstands with varying degrees of shamelessness in cameos which may be heartily amusing in themselves, but do nothing for the action's overall balance or flow.

Additionally, the cast's grasp of MacMillan's dense vernacular Scots is decidedly variable, ranging all the way from Julie Austen's often laboured recitation, as Argan's daughter Angelique, to the robust, easy eloquence of Carol Ann Crawford and Matt Costello, playing his servant and brother.

These latter two aside, there's a prevailing air of slightly nervous haste about the cast's delivery that not only obscures a good deal of the dialogue, but exacerbates the scrappiness and uncertainty that beset the production as a whole.

Some of these problems may resolve themselves as the show settles into its run, but as things stand they hinder our engagement with both characters and storyline, which in turn detracts from the potential contemporary resonance of Moliÿre's satirical targets - his questioning of our faith in the powers of doctors and medicine, as against trusting in nature to heal, and his characteristic sending up of self-importance and avarice.

The lack of a solid centre to the piece, too, substantially undermines Cownie's more wilfully cavalier, panto or slapstick-style production touches - again, there are plenty of isolated rewarding moments, but they seem part of a rather creaky and ill-assorted assemblage, instead of emerging from an organic, integrated whole.

To 7 Oct (0131-248 4848)

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