Hillary Bell's take on Molière's classic is often funny but fizzles instead of erupting into fireworks
Look. It’s winter. It’s cold and it starts getting dark after lunch. Sometimes you just want to go out, have a good dinner, maybe drink some wine, and see a show that doesn’t take itself seriously. Sometimes you just want to laugh at people putting their hands in oversized piles of human shit and chuckle-cringe to see them getting splashed with the spray of an uncontrolled pumpkin spice enema.
If that’s the way to cure your ills (or at least provide you two hours’ solid distraction from them), then Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s take on The Hypochondriac is for you. First written in 1673 by playwright-poet-clown Molière, this production has been given the 21st century – and Aussie colloquial – treatment by local playwright Hilary Bell.
The titular hypochondriac is Argan (Official Theatre Larrikin Darren Gilshenan), an old crank who is throwing money at quack doctors like old Diafoirus (Monica Sayers) for elaborate solutions to ailments he probably doesn’t have. He never leaves his bed, but still attempts to control his family and long-suffering housekeeper (Lucia Mastrantone) with all the pomposity of, well, an old white guy. He tries to marry his daughter Angelique (Emma Harvie) to Diafoirus’ son (Jamie Oxenbould) – also a doctor – for his own benefit, despite the fact that Angelique is desperately in love with young busker Cléante (Gabriel Fancourt). Meanwhile, Argan’s wife Beline (Sophie Gregg) is waiting for him to die so she can pocket his cash and take her affair with the family lawyer (also Fancourt) out into the open.
The Hypochondriac takes aim at Big Pharma and Rich Idiots but not with any real venom. It’s more of a feel-good tackle that ends in a friendly squeeze – or a lifeless handshake, depending on your tolerance levels. Interspersed with live-action ads for various pills, this prop-heavy farce uses song and dance, giant fake dicks, and hiding-behind-curtains-and-under-the-bed physical romps with relish. You can almost hear the Benny Hill soundtrack in the air.
Farce is crude, broad and clownish by design, so if you like your comedy with nuance and rigour, this is probably a genre, and a production, best avoided. But for those who buy into this nothing-but-a-dirty-old-time mentality, The Hypochondriac could be fun – perhaps half the audience on the night of this critic’s attendance got in some good guffaws.
This kind of comedy is at its best with bang-on timing, keen comic instincts, and top-down clarity (even when an entire ensemble is chasing after each other or passing a bedpan around), and The Hypochondriac never really gets off the ground in these respects. Director Jo Turner keeps the play at sparkler-level; it fizzles instead of erupting into fireworks. It’s always a little behind the beat and there’s no steady rhythm; about half of its jokes fall flat, and whenever that happens the show takes a few moments to find its feet again.
Bell has given the women of the play some contemporary assistance, but it’s mostly window-dressing: each have more ideas, quips and strength to call their own, but their actions are still motivated, and their dreams only achieved, by the assistance and attention of men. However, it gives Mastrantone and Harvie especially some real moments to shine – both are at home with comedy and keep their performances pleasingly tongue-in-cheek. Gilshenan’s Argan is both funny and pathetic, but rarely at the same time, and it’s that simultaneous contrast that really helps a farce excel – but he’s at home here, which lends his performance a comfortable, easy air that takes the rough edges off Argan’s intolerable personality.
Still, Verity Hampson’s lighting drenches the show with a candy-bright lightness, bringing up the energy of the piece, and Michael Hankin’s straightforward design hints at both luxury and fun without being fussy. The ensemble is collectively game for anything: Fancourt plays three characters with full-bodied, puppyish enthusiasm, and Sayers, Gregg and Oxenbould provide indefatigable backup, all with committed physical and vocal ‘bits’.
This isn’t a comic masterpiece. But it’s a low-pressure, low-audience-effort good time. All The Hypochondriac wants to do is entertain you, so if that’s your jam, you might as well let it.