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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Chichester Festival Theatre


  Neil Stuke and Dervla Kirwan/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer film didn't have the French bit in the title, and that wasn't the only change from the original off-Broadway stage production. Terrence McNally's 1987 play never leaves waitress Frankie's Hell's Kitchen apartment, whereas Gary Marshall's 1991 film spends much of its time in the diner where Frankie waits and Johnny is a short-order cook. 

But the biggest difference between the stage and screen versions is that Hollywood decided to cast two of the world's most beautiful people in a play whose purpose is to give ordinary people a rare chance to fall in love in front of an audience. At least, that was the complaint of many of the movie's critics – fans, no doubt, of the original off-Broadway version starring Kathy Bates.

This revival at England's south coast hit factory in Chichester stars Dervla Kirwan and Neil Stuke, both best known for their light entertainment series on British television. And backhanded compliment though this may be, neither has the star wattage of Pacino and Pfeiffer – appropriately enough. That said, in the scene where Stuke's Johnny dons Frankie's sunglasses, he might well pass for a middle-aged Jack Nicholson.

In Paulette Randall's beautifully acted production, set in designer Libby Watson's convincing cramped apartment, Stuke and Kirwan are wonderful foils for each other. Each has the air of an ordinary person bruised and toughened by a life of hard knocks. But it has left each of them with very different attitudes towards love. Johnny is looking for it; Frankie is avoiding it. In this way she will hopefully also avoid the physical and emotional scars of a violent past. 

Set over the course of one moonlit night, the bittersweet play's beginning – with the couple reaching orgasm under bedclothes – is also markedly different from the film, which sees Pacino's Johnny leaving prison. Here the climaxes – promisingly, one each for Frankie and Johnny – are so ecstatic, they brought spontaneous applause from one member of the audience. From then on the self-educated, Shakespeare-quoting Johnny still has his work cut out. Everything he wants in life is in this room, and his campaign to hold on to it is blunt, heartfelt, sincere and, from Frankie's point of view, utterly terrifying.

In his vest, the rotund Stuke is every plump inch the embodiment of vulgar charm. And in her dressing gown, Kirwan captures the condition of a woman who finds Johnny simultaneously seductive and repulsive. Both play the pitch and rhythms of New York badinage with spot-on, tragicomic timing. There's just one false note. Before each act Randall sets the period with 80s pop music, a time when it was possible for a waitress to live in pre-gentrified Hell's Kitchen. But after Frankie and Johnny's possible future is heralded by the heart-swelling strains of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," we leave the theatre to yet more pop. The spell is almost broken. Silence would have been a far more effective coda.


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