Promise never quite fulfilled

Chin-Chin

Malvern Theatres

***

THE ORIGINAL play Tchin-Tchin by François Billetdoux was first performed in Montparnasse in 1959. The production starring Celia Johnson and Anthony Quayle was a massive Broadway and West End hit and the play has been translated into 19 languages.

Although it was allegedly written to promote the playwright’s Christian moral doctrine of renouncing material possessions and riches, most audiences at the time saw the play as blasphemous, perhaps because of the odd relationships and antisocial behaviour portrayed.

Chin-Chin may, I feel, be similarly misconstrued by modern audiences, as despite being billed as a bittersweet comedy I found the story and characters far more bitter than sweet, and decidedly more tragic than comic.

Set in 1950s Paris, Chin-Chin stars two of Britain’s most loved and highly regarded actors, Felicity Kendal and Simon Callow. It is produced by Bill Kenwright and directed by Michael Rudman, who is apparently Kendall’s ex-husband and current partner. Both Kenwright’s and Rudman’s work and successes span decades, and the television, stage and film roles of Kendall (The Good Life, Rosemary and Thyme, The Mistress) and Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Waiting For Godot) are varied and impressive, which of course leads the audience to expect great things. However, this play did not quite deliver, and although all of the actors put in fine performances, as a whole the piece seemed oddly devoid of emotion or depth.

The play begins with Paméla Pusey-Picq (Kendall) and Cesareo Grimaldi (Callow) meeting surreptitiously in a tea-room on a winter’s afternoon.

We find that they have been jilted by their spouses and have decided to meet up to discuss the situation, or as Paméla hopes, to rectify things somehow. She seems perfectly English – controlled and balanced – and believes that together they can hatch a plan to get their partners back.

WHISKY QUAFFING

In contrast, the passionate Cesareo is a whisky quaffing Italian who wavers between desperation and resignation at his plight. Bound together by these unusual circumstances, the two keep up regular meetings, and  Paméla soon succumbs to Cesareo’s oft proffered alcohol, and loses her self-control, becoming more distressed and openly miserable as the play goes on.

Michael Taylor’s set deserves a mention as scene changes for the most part went smoothly and the stage was convincingly transformed from tea-room to apartment to Paris street with a very pleasing rotating section which only once got jammed leaving Paméla’s son Bobby (played by a remarkably unflustered Joshua Dickinson) pacing Cesareo’s office for rather longer than anticipated.

Again, I found the mother-son relationship very cold, and as Cesareo pointed out, it may well have been Paméla’s seeming coolness which drove her husband into another woman’s arms. We certainly see her as needy and neurotic, and despite her continual talk of love and devotion to her husband, and her obvious physical charms, she does not strike one as an appealing character or an easy to live with wife.

Similarly, Cesareo’s passion starts to feel like nothing more than posturing when later on in the play, Paméla is begging him for a reaction or emotion and he seems to have nothing to offer. The affection between characters never came across as particularly genuine, and even in their moments of despair and sorrow I felt that I did not truly care about the characters or what became of them, and for me any work of art, any play, any book, any poem can only be said to be successful or worthy or great if it makes its audience care.

My favourite line from the play was Cesareo’s, ‘When I’m lost for words, I can’t stop talking,’ which does sum him (and the play) up nicely, and credit must go to Callow for keeping up the Italian accent throughout. I personally prefer to see him in more serious roles, however, and I feel that this production did not let either of the main actors show their potential, which they have proven to us on many occasions.

A little disappointing then overall, and for a play about relationships and marriage and love it seemed markedly devoid of sincere emotion. Moral messages may have been lost on me, but I found the ending bizarrely disturbing. Perhaps it was a warning of the evils of alcohol, but I’m afraid it merely left me in need of some cheerier entertainment, and a very stiff drink.

Chin-Chin runs at Malvern Theatres until 16-11-13 and then moves on to Cheltenham, Cardiff and Truro.

Amy Rainbow

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