Our Man In Paris: Theatre of the absurdly successful

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The rue de la Huchette is the ghastliest street in Paris, a narrow passage crammed with kebab houses and trashy souvenir shops, in the tourist-infested heart of the Latin Quarter. For 46 years, it has also been the home of a remarkable cultural institution, a world record-holder, that is relatively little known or celebrated even by the French.

I dropped in the other night on the Théâtre de la Huchette, a tiny play-house, whose 100-seat auditorium opens straight off the street. The same two plays by Eugène Ionesco - the Romanian, but adopted French master of the theatre of the absurd - have been performed here nightly (Sundays excepted) since 16 February 1957.

Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, first shown in London in 1952, is usually claimed to be the longest-running play in the world. In 1973, however, The Mousetrap moved from one West End theatre to another. The production reinvented itself with new direction and new scenery.

The two short Ionesco plays at the Huchette have never moved. La Cantatrice Chauve (performed in English as The Bald Prima Donna) and La Leçonhave been performed here for 46 years and three months, during the reigns of six French presidents and 22 prime ministers. The production is unchanged. So is the scenery. Of the original troupe of 60 actors, three still perform. (There are six or more actors for each of the nine roles in the two plays, and the cast rotates every two to three weeks.)

The Théâtre de la Huchette claims that its 14,600-odd performances of the two plays make it the true world record-holder for theatrical longevity. The Huchette certainly owns the record for the longest, continuous run of a play (or plays) in one theatre.

"There is another, more important difference with The Mousetrap," says Jacques Legré, 65, the Huchette's director since 1975, who retires next month. "The Mousetrap started as a detective thriller, and is still a detective thriller. When we started off, Ionesco was avant-garde. We were regularly booed and insulted in the press. Ionesco has now become part of the classical repertoire."

M. Legré is also an actor. He has been appearing, on and off, as Mr Smith or Mr Martin, in La Cantatrice Chauve since 1960. This play was first produced at another theatre in Paris in 1950. The director was Nicolas Bataille, who also took the role of Mr Martin. M. Bataille directed the Huchette "revival" in 1957 and, now in his mid-seventies, still appears occasionally as Mr Martin at the Huchette (surely another record).

"When we set out, we had no thought of having a long run," says M. Legré. "The first year was a success, so we did a second and then a third. And here we still are. We rarely have an empty seat. Most of the audience is young, but there are also people who were brought along by their parents and now come back with their own children."

The plays last for one hour each and are followed by a third play, not by Ionesco, which changes every few months. You can book to see any one, two or all three.

The Ionesco plays are wonderfully funny and beautifully acted. The first is the story of an English couple, the Smiths, who remember, after they have finished eating, that they have invited another couple, Mr and Mrs Martin to dinner. An awkward evening is interrupted by The Captain, a fireman, who looks like a cross between a Gestapo officer and an English policeman. He relates a series of portentous but meaningless anecdotes and aphorisms, culminating in: "The bald female opera-singer always does her hair the same way."

The second play is a satire on the abstractions of the French education system (or so it seemed to me). An ambitious schoolgirl turns up for a private lesson with a kindly, pompous professor, who tries, unsuccessfully, to fill her mind with absurdly theoretical and partially incorrect information. He becomes so frustrated that, in the end, he stabs her. She turns out to be the 40th victim that day.

Ionesco is now performed in scores of languages all over the world but the acknowledged reference, for those who know, is the Huchette: a kind of Royal Shakespeare Company of the theatre of the absurd.

Reasonable understanding of French is enough to follow what is happening on stage (in so far as anyone can). Even after 46 years, seats are precious and you should book in advance: Théâtre de la Huchette, 23 rue de la Huchette, 75005 Paris (0033 1 43 26 38 99).

Something sinister in the changing rooms

The French are taller than they were 30 years ago. French men are fatter but have smaller bottoms. French women are broader in the waist and have bigger, and lower, breasts.

This presents a problem for the ready-to-wear clothes industry, which bases its standard sizes on a survey of the shape of average French bodies in 1970. From Friday, the federation of French clothing industries is sending two computer scanners on an 18-month voyage of discovery through the changing-rooms of clothes shops and department stores. Volunteers, aged from five to 70 - 12,000 of them - will be scanned. The result should be the most accurate, three-dimensional pictures ever created of the standard shapes of French men, women and children.

The campaign is part of an EU-approved policy called "E-Tailor". A similar survey is planned in Britain. Does the Daily Mail know about this? Clearly, something sinister is afoot. The clothes industry, and the Eurocrats in Brussels, say that they are merely trying to make off-the-peg clothes fit better. What if they were planning secretly to breed Europeans of standard sizes?

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