REVIEW: The Hypochondriac (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until October 25)

What's on.
What's on.

There is a moment in the new production of The Hypochondriac when the protagonist is invited by his brother to attend a play by Moliere. He responds that he would rather go and have his teeth cut out.

This is dangerous territory when giving a classic 17th Century French farce a tweak for 21st Century audiences for it provides a perfect opportunity for all to cry, “Yes, and after seeing this, we’d have joined you!”

Add to the mix a twist ending from over 50 years ago in which the leading character dies, and which itself becomes a homage to the writer, who himself collapsed while playing the role and died soon after, and you end up with something best described as weird. Throw in a set of musicians who pop up between acts to sing such delights as “Germs are All Around” and “Blood in My Poo” and you’ll see why people are likely to open their mouths and say, “aaahhh!”

With its heavy dose of lavatorial humour, this not entirely displeasing update by Richard Bean of Moliere’s 1673 original never descends into farce – and that’s one problem for a comedy of confusion which rarely proves that laughter is the best medicine, and looks largely like the sort of thing university students would stage during rag week.

When the biggest laugh of the evening is gained by one of the oldest jokes in the book (“With friends like that who needs enemas?”) a production may be said to be struggling. In fairness, that’s not completely the case here, but it would be fascinating to sit down with the cast, translator, and co-directors Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair to find out exactly what they felt they were doing with this piece, which started the rounds last week in Bath and which surely has expectations of a West End run.

The excellent Tony Robinson gives what may best be described as a workmanlike performance as Argan, the miserable central character, who imagines he has all manner of illnesses and has been treated by a series of quack doctors who charge much for doing little. So obsessed is he by what he thinks is wrong with him that he misses the domestic drama going on under his own nose – from the gold-digging antics of his wife (a wonderful performance by Imogen Stubbs) to his daughter’s love for a besotted apprentice, and their efforts to avoid her being married off to an idiotic trainee doctor.

There are certainly some lovely performances: Lisa Diveney as the genuine loving daughter Angelique, Jordan Metcalfe as her charming object of affection Cleante, David Collings as Dr Diafoirehoea, and especially Craig Gazey’s brilliant comic turn as the witless doctor’s son and would-be suitor to Angelique, Thomas. Tracie Bennett garners many of the laughs as the outrageous and disrespectful maidservant, who manages to sort everything out by the final scene.

The wicked knocking of the medical profession and the ease of finding illness where there is none is timeless (as the ‘Google it and see’ message of the funniest song Hypo-Chon-Dria demonstrates), but Roger McGough’s translation of the work a few years ago was much better and captured the spirit of the piece more successfully with its clever rhyming couplets and verse style.

This Carry On Up the Colon version may raise some titters but the lasting question has to be if this case of hypochondria will ever be catching.