The Garrick Theatre’s new version of The Miser looks like a winning formula. London loves a farce. The success of One Man Two Guv’nors, The Play That Goes Wrong and The Beaux’ Stratagem are all recent proof of the city’s appetite for Restoration buoyancy. All the more so when it’s a farce scattered with big comedic stars, as this one is – Griff Rhys Jones, Lee Mack and Andi Osho among them. And director Sean Foley’s got previous form with the farcical, his staging of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense a good-natured whirlwind that more than deserves the Olivier Award it won. So far, so foolproof. But thirty minutes into this adaptation and there’s a slow trickle of people walking out. More empty seats crop up after the interval. The production struggles under the weight of its modernisation, squarely in the #banter corner of the comedy universe.
You can see what it’s aiming for: something like the buoyant, joyous fusion of one-liners and broader comedic plot arcs, of modern relevance and Restoration setting you get with Blackadder III. The Miser’s got the energy, it’s got the star-studded cast and it’s got the topical material to make it happen. But it also has a lack of faith in its audience – and in their ability to get the satire without being clouted over the head with it.
Even the original play wasn’t short of relevance. The Miser’s a play about the dangers of valuing money over happiness. It’s about the poor suffering at the hands of the rich. It’s about the wealthy getting wealthier, about women being treated as objects, about access to justice being for those who can pay for it. If you watch this updated version unfold without finding anything familiar or painfully topical in Maitre Jacques (Lee Mack) desperately moonlighting as stableman, chef, butler and sommelier to please a grasping boss, then the laboured, relentless gags about zero hours contracts, Sports Direct and cuts to front line services aren’t going to suddenly do it for you. And if the gags land heavily to start with, the fourth-wall busting explanations of why they should’ve been funny – ‘That was a bit of social commentary we just heard…’ and ‘…enough social commentary, we’re not at the Royal Court’ – feel just as heavy.
There are times where you see glimpses of what the play could be. There’s the moment where tyrannous, miserly Harpagon discovers his money’s been stolen, the savings he prizes above everything else. It’s also money he believes he needs to save him from helpless destitution. It’s a scene with some of the same sudden, brutal vulnerability at its heart as Shylock’s discovery of his daughter’s betrayal in The Merchant of Venice. And if the audience were trusted to cope with a character being problematic – being tyrannous and terrified, persecutor and frail at the same time – it’d be one of devastating pathos.
This staging skids over the scene briefly, instead, playing it as the comeuppance of a pantomime baddie. Harpagon hobbles about the stage cursing, mugging to the audience, the anguish of his discovery swept away by the slapstick bursting of waterpipes. And the play spins on relentlessly one-note, your drunk uncle at a wedding doing ‘That’s what she said’ gags till somebody puts him in a cab.
The saving grace here is that the cast are really, thoroughly, leaning in. Osho, as matchmaking hustler Frosine, sweeps majestically through some leaden one-liners, making you hope she turns up in stage roles more often. Rhys Jones and Ellie White (as his reluctant bride Marianne) are both charismatic. Everybody’s throwing everything they’ve got into the two acts. Still though. It feels longer than its two and a half hours. And the woman to my right falls asleep, twice. The first time her partner prods her awake she looks repentant, the second time, just aggrieved.
The Miser at The Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0HH until 3rd June 2017. Running time approximately 2 hours 30 minutes including interval. Production images by Helen Maybanks. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.