Watching Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon is like consuming a light soufflé in which someone has secreted bits of razor blade. Both its gossamer texture and its astringency are honoured in the barbed elegance of Sean Mathias's entertaining revival at the Playhouse.
He uses the 1950 adaptation by Christopher Fry, subtitled "a charade with music". The setting is the winter garden of a French country house where a ball is about to commence. The production shifts the action from the belle époque to the period of the comedy's 1947 premiere, the New Look Dior gowns reeking of demobbed glamour.
Like some playboy version of Prospero, the cynical Hugo is determined to stage-manage this event and has hired Isabelle, a beautiful, impoverished ballet dancer, in the hope that she will dazzle his twin Frederic and save him from a potentially calamitous marriage to the daughter of a Jewish millionaire. The plan works – up to a point. The twist is that, when she's humiliated by the toffs because of her low rank and by the rich because of her poverty, the girl who's being paid to be a fraud refuses to be bought off, her stand exposing the superficial values of her alleged betters.
"I love it when the lamb turns round and eats up the high priest," declares the elderly chatelaine whose fluting aristocratic imperiousness and spurts of subversive wisdom are drolly conveyed by Angela Thorne. She tosses spanners into her calculating nephew's works, as when (to spite him) she calmly pretends that Isabelle's mother – a vulgar embarrassment (Belinda Lang) whom Hugo has been struggling to hide – is an old chum whom she kits out as a countess.
There's a bizarre scene in which Isabelle (deftly portrayed by Fiona Button) and Leigh Lawson's depressive millionaire demonstrate their immunity to the charms of money by boisterously shredding bundles of banknotes. As a radical gesture, this has its limits; it's not the most positive redistribution of wealth.
In a striking West End debut, the fetching JJ Feild adroitly differentiates the sensitive, melancholy Frederic and the fascinatingly heartless Hugo. Driven to a frenzy of superiority, the latter imagines he has seen through the pretences of his guests, but the play sees much further than he does.
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