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The Hypochondriac at The Everyman, Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 15:15 30 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:50 04 December 2014

Tony Robinson (centre) as Argan / Photo: Simon Annand

Tony Robinson (centre) as Argan / Photo: Simon Annand

Archant

If you’re in need of a tonic, then catch The Hypochondriac at Cheltenham Everyman this week – not a farce where trousers fall down, so much as a farce where trousers are permanently down, awaiting the next enema, says Katie Jarvis

Tony Robinson as Argan and Imogen Stubbs as Beline / Photo: Simon AnnandTony Robinson as Argan and Imogen Stubbs as Beline / Photo: Simon Annand

Ah, Molière! The brilliant 17th century French playwright, who holds up mirrors to his audiences. But circus mirrors. Mirrors that distort so comically, no one recognises their own reflection. It worked for audiences beamed upon by le Roi-Soleil, and treated by doctors who swore by bear grease, crabs’ eyes, spiders’ webs; even that efficacious remedy provided by moss scraped from the skull of a convict hanged in chains.

It continued to work through the centuries, from Victorian cures – Cocaine toothache drops! Ozone paper for the relief of asthma! – and on into the 20th century world of catchable symptoms provided courtesy of Reader’s Digest. (Even I felt convinced of a low sperm count after reading, ‘I am John’s testicle’; just as many men would feel the first frightening twinges of an ectopic pregnancy after ‘I am Jane’s fallopian tube’.)

And so onto Molière’s biting Le Malade imaginaire, - The Hypochondriac, in Richard Bean’s sparkling version, which translates and updates with light wit and heavy satire. This is a farce, not where trousers so much fall down, as where they’re permanently down in readiness for the daily enema that will loosen bowels and lengthen lives.

This production begins with a reassuringly catchy song (which I predict will go viral): Smallpox in Stoke/Obesity in Oxford/Flu in Folkestone; Germs are in the air/ Germs are everywhere; before the curtain opens on the wonderful Tony Robinson as Argan – everything you’d want in a hero: bowel-obsessed; constipated; irritable with pent-up… (well, you know what; just look at the previous descriptions, if you’re unsure). Dr Purgeon (oh, wait until you get to the Doctors Diafoirehoea!) has charged him a buttock-clenching 20 francs for anal vetting. If it wasn’t for the fact that an enema by thumb is so enjoyable, this would be an outrage!

Into this outpouring of anger – and other substances, straight into a flowerpot; honestly, this is not humour for those who’ve recently dined – comes the divine Toinette (a fantastically frantic, furiously funny, manically manic Tracie Bennett), who has just cracked her head on the shutters: “I might die! Could be a brain tumour!”

Tracie Bennett as Toinette / Photo: Simon AnnandTracie Bennett as Toinette / Photo: Simon Annand

And so, as bowels further open, so the story further unfolds. So obsessed is Argan with his health, that he’s determined his daughter Angelique (the perfect Lisa Diveney) should marry a doctor – thus would romance and free enemas go hand-in-hand. His wife, Angelique’s stepmother Beline (Imogen Stubbs, no less! Delightful, whether hamming it up in a loving rasp to Argan, or, indeed, rolling around the settle with her solicitor lover. We were utterly spoiled in this magnificent production, so spot-on in its casting) is horrified. If Angelique marries as her father wishes, then Beline will be left without a full inheritance.

Luckily, Angelique is in love with unsuitable apprentice Cleante (Jordan Metcalfe). And even more luckily, no one in their right mind would marry her ‘intended’ – the utterly wonderful Craig Gazey as Thomas, a slow learner, breastfed until the age of 16. A mix between the Jolly Green Giant and an actor from one of the Pampers adverts, Thomas gives a speech to his intended future mother-in-law, which is as utterly moving as an enema: so admiring is he of Beline, he announces, that his sadness of never having been an egg stuck in her fallopian tubes is overwhelming.

There are more songs, such as the lovely ‘Blood in my poo’; more jokes than you can shake a crutch at; and some pretty harsh comments on 17th century doctors, who stuck to the old ways like leeches to a blood-letting. (Circulationists!) Whatever next!)

But…

As the final burlesque – the play within a play - draws to a close, the mood suddenly, unexpectedly, changes. Argan begins coughing, pulling away a blood-covered handkerchief from his mouth. “Molière!” someone shouts in panic. The Cheltenham audience tittered and gaffawed uncertainly. But they were missing the pathos in this mind-shifting end. For, it turns out, this is a play within a play within a play within a play. Molière himself was playing Argan on the night he died: February 17, 1673. During the performance, he suffered a convulsion, which he disguised as a grimace. Ever the pro, he struggled through; but he died later that night, hating the quackery of medics and the hypocrisy of the Church – his two great enemies – to the last.

Imogen Stubbs as Beline / Photo: Simon AnnandImogen Stubbs as Beline / Photo: Simon Annand

Sad times.

But hey! If you don’t fancy catching anything else this winter, then do catch this contagiously funny production of The Hypochrondriac, on at the Everyman until Saturday (November 1).

And remember, when life hits rock bottom, only a full enema will put things right.

• The Hypochrondriac by Molière, starring Tony Robinson in a version by Richard Bean, is at Cheltenham Everyman from Monday, October 27-Saturday, November 1; 7-10 Regent St, Cheltenham GL50 1HQ, 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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