Theatre: MONSIEUR AMILCAR Chichester Festival Theatre

`With a quite unjustified air of being deliciously original, it plays some tired sub-Pirandellian variations on the difficulty of differentiati ng real from faked emotion'
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Penelope Keith Bares All at Chichester Shock!! Well, OK, she's not totally naked: there's a floppy, broad-brimmed hat (conventionally situated) putting paid to that. And before you start block-booking, it's only fair to admit that it's as the subject of an oil-painting, not in your actual flesh, that the unclad Ms Keith makes an appearance in this new Tim Luscombe staging of Monsieur Amilcar. Indeed, if the smartly attired actress were not reclining in front of a blow-up projection of this sexless daub, helpfully adopting the same pose, you'd need to be telepathic to identify it as her. But then this is Chichester, and Ms Keith is not Sharon Stone.

Nakedness of the Emperor's New Clothes variety confronts you in the form of this tiresome 1974 Yves Jamiaque comedy, adapted from the French by George Gonneau and Norman Rose. With a quite unjustified air of being deliciously original, it plays some tired sub-Pirandellian variations on the difficulty of differentiating real from faked emotion and on the dehumanising effects of too thorough a mistrust of apparent feeling.

The title character (Keith Michell) is a rich Parisian who has had, or so he claims, 30 years of being let down in love and friendship. His extreme solution is to replace his actual intimates with a cast of three strangers: a middle-aged painter (Ben Aris) and a young scrubber (Lois Harvey), both picked up off the street, plus a loftily disdainful professional actress (played, in a piece of shock casting, by Ms Keith). For 10,000 francs a week, they are to simulate the situation that life has failed to afford him by improvising, to his direction, the behaviour of a perfect wife, daughter and friend. He wants it to look like the real thing and to be pure appearance: it's a stipulation of the contract that these coin-operated "kin" should never experience the emotions they feign.

It's a massive simplification of life to remove the agony of doubt by eliminating the possibility of genuineness and, of course, life refuses to remain thus simplified. The effortful charade is disturbed not just by external factors: the actress's grand, credulous mother (Jean Kent) and the scrubber's would-be revolutionary biker-boyfriend (Adam Magnani). Aridly, because neither the writing nor the acting make you care for a moment for either figure, the comedy also shows you how the "performances" of the Keith-character and Amilcar start to develop a tricky, not to say tricksy, relationship with what is going on inside them. It doesn't help the production that Ms Keith makes tearful or enraged sincerity look pretty much as actressy as the moments when actressiness is what is called for. One can only assume that actors in Russia, where the piece has been performed an astonishing 2,000 times, find more passion under all this cruel, derivative games-playing.

The music used adds up to an excellent anthology of songs about love, trust and pretending (you hear snatches of "Make Believe", "It's Only a Paper Moon", "The Great Pretender", "I'm Not in Love" etc). It's the bits in between that are the snag.

n To 14 Oct. Booking: 01243 781312

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