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French farce Beauty sidetracks education in smart Shaw comedy

Summer is in full bloom at the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre when Terence Rattigan's comic romp "French Without Tears" is on stage.

Smartly written and smartly played, "French" is the kind of comedy whose natural birthplace is London's West End but, with its universal understanding of human frailty and foolishness, travels quite well.

The ensemble can best be described as dashing. A group of young Brits is ensconced in a Miramar coastal hotel, where they are studying French with the professor-owner, helped by his charming daughter.

At least, they are trying to study French, because also on site is the lithe and lovely Diana Lake, sister of one of their fellow students.

"Is she learning French, too?" a new guest inquires.

"No, she's just stopping us from learning it," says Brian (Craig Pike), the heartiest of the would-be academics.

Thus Rattigan easily sums up his story, then it is on with the fun. Diana, played with bewitching insincerity by Robin Evan Willis, is indeed a major distraction to all that verbal conjugation.

The young men either love Diana, lust for her or are trying with all their might to ignore her. And they, being rather inexperienced young men, have no idea how to do any of those.

Add to the mix a new, older student, a naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Rogers (Martin Harper, appropriately reserved), and all bets are off. What follows is tightly in the mode of mid-20th century literate goofball humor, unusual from Rattigan but familiar from dozens of P.G. Wodehouse novels, with this French inn a swell stand-in for the Drones Club. While no one is called "old chap" -- nor is there any asking of "Tennis, anyone?" -- the other elements of British farce are here in abundance: the jolly banter, the costume party, the drunken confessions and the madcap climax and daffy denouement.

Student Alan Howard (Ben Sanders, right on target) plays the brains of the outfit, such as it has. He is studying French to join the diplomatic corps, but he would rather be a writer. ("Do I look like they've accepted my novel?" he cries at one point when asked about his book. Brian, the funny bone of the group, shoots back, "We don't know what you look like when they accept your novel.")

Kit (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) is the lovelorn heart of the bunch, infatuated with Diana and the most at her command -- which becomes a problem when she sets her cap for the commander instead.

Gravitas comes in the form of the instructor, Monsieur Maingot (Michael Ball); common sense is embodied in his daughter, Jacqueline (Julie Martell), called "Jack" in a collegial way by the boys. Down to earth and wonderful in every way, she is in unrequited love with Kit.

After many mad exits and entrances, misunderstandings and alliances, it all works out in the end, of course. This isn't a mystery by any means. Just like a vacation in France, the whole point is to enjoy it while it lasts.




Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

WHEN: Through Sept. 15

WHERE: Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

TICKETS: $41 to $90

INFO: (905) 468-2172 or (800) 511-7429;