The Hypochondriac – Review – Sheffield Crucible

The Hypochondriac Review Sheffield Crucible (1)

By Clare Jenkins, October 2023

Well, now, this is radical: a 17th Century play set in a cluttered, book-lined 17th Century room, peopled by characters in 17th Century costumes – and staged at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. No disco glitterballs, rollerskates or psychedelic costumes as in last year’s Anna Karenina. No slides, giant frogs or black PVC mini-dresses, as in this spring’s Good Person of Szechwan. No attempt, in fact, to make the play ‘relevant’ or ‘edgy’ or anything other than what Moliere intended – a rollicking satire on gullibility and medical chicanery.

Colin Richmond’s set is glorious: a green-and-gold study, with books piling up to the ceiling, papers tumbling from the shelves, receipts spilling out of desk drawers, empty bottles (presumably of various quack cures, ominously stained) littering the floor, the whole reminiscent of an untidier version of Velasquez’s Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting).

There’s more than a hint of Velasquez, too, in the costumes. As Angelique, the daughter of the household, Saroja-Lily Ratnaval wears a bright pink chiffon dress and ribbons in her ringleted hair as she jumps up and down like an excited doll. Jessica Ransom, meanwhile, is in a fetching blue floral number, with hooped skirts and plunging neckline, as the scheming Beline, running rings around her enema-obsessed husband Argan, while making eyes at the avaricious lawyer Bonnefoi (André Refig).

The Hypochondriac Review Sheffield Crucible (3)

“Delightfully bonkers”

For a man supposedly afflicted by every disease and complaint going, Edward Hogg is remarkably tireless as Argan, limping and lolloping around the stage, terrified of death and in hoc to the doctors taking advantage of him (“It’s the quality of the suffering that you pay for…”). He’s also furious with Angelique for resisting marriage to Thomas (Garmon Rhys), the buffoonish son of his favourite physician, with an over-exaggerated bow, and a truly dreadful haircut.

Angelique has eyes only for the charming Cleante (Zak Ghazi-Torbati), her supposed music teacher. Their improvised operatic duet expressing their love manages to stay just this side of awful – though “I’d call it utter drivel,” says Argan after the final fol-de-rol.

Moliere’s original comedie-ballet was intended to include over an hour of music by the Baroque composer Charpentier. Director Sarah Tipple’s delightfully bonkers version gives us Oliver Birch’s music – played on period instruments, including a harpsichord, and directed onstage by Jonathan Ainscough.

Roger McGough’s rhyming couplets adaptation can at times be distracting. You can, for instance, become so fixated by what might rhyme with faeces (theses, of course) that the meaning of the text is lost.

The Hypochondriac Review Sheffield Crucible (2)

“Mad and meaningful”

Whilst fundamentally a French farce, there’s more than a touch of Monty Python in some of the slapstick – as when Argan dashes headlong into a framed anatomical drawing held by his long-suffering servant Toinette (a magnificent performance by Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos, mixing affection, exasperation, irreverence and wisdom). Towards the end, she ludicrously disguises herself as an Italian doctor to try and wean her employer away from quacks, at which point Argan realises the errors of his ways.

Throughout, it veers between silly and surreal, mad and meaningful. There are explosive farts and lavatorial noises off, a fourth wall joke about Monsieur Interval, occasional lapses into cod French, madrigals, a can-can…

Moliere, already very sick, died after the fourth performance in 1673 and there are references to him throughout. At one point, Argan’s sensible but exasperated brother Beralde (Chris Hannon) suggests they go to see La Malade Imaginaire – the play’s French title.

The great playwright would surely have been amused and may well have joined in the standing ovation at the end. It may be daft, but, 350 years after its first performance, it’s also just what the doctor ordered.

‘The Hypochondriac’ is on at Sheffield Crucible until Saturday 21st October:
images: Manuel Harlan


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