However, the play is as much about Argan’s other domestic affairs as it is his hypochondria, although the matters are generally related. For example, he is determined to marry off his daughter Angelique to a doctor, quite against her will, merely so that he can have access to free medical attention within the household. Angelique of course is already in love with the young hunk Cleante. Additionally, Argan’s second wife Beline is a two-faced schemer who seeks to swindle her husband out of his remaining fortune by getting her barrister (with whom she is apparently having an affair) to convince Argan of some spurious legal reasons to sign away his money before the death he fancifully imagines to be imminent.
Eventually, Argan’s infinitely more rational brother Beralde visits him and conspires with Toinette to craft a few outrageous ruses to reveal Beline’s treacherous greed and free Angelique from her dreadful obligation. Most fundamentally, they hope to cure Argan of his hypochondria by demonstrating the profiteering fraudulence of doctors.
Although the character and situational comedy of The Hypochondriac still works very well, the central attack on the fraudulence of the 17th Century medical profession may seem a bit contextually remote for some. Molière is not against good, scientific medicine, but rather the class of irresponsible shysters seeking only to line their pockets, which he would apparently have us believe constituted the bulk of practitioners in his day. However, Molière does have something to say to future generations (with striking foresight, depending on your point of view), that even when medical science has found proper cures for every malady under the sun, there will always be gullible or simply contrary people who will want to try alternative remedies offered by charlatans.
This production of The Hypochondriac is one that will definitely have you laughing out loud, although it is a bit uneven at times. Sam Hayes gets some great laughs as the foolish and irascible Argan, and Holly McBride does a good job as his innocent yet willful daughter Angelique.
The young Isabel Wilson is sweet as his other daughter Louison, and Andrew Sheehan makes the most of his small role as Bonnefoi. Stephen Multari has a convincing air about him as Cleante, as when making up his cover story on the fly one genuinely believes that he himself doesn’t know the next words that will come out of his mouth.
Thomas, Angelique’s prospective husband, is played to great effect by Scott Clare. Taking the character described as dull and speaking almost entirely in prepared speeches, Clare turns the role into a slightly surreal idiot-savant that is just this side of being a complete automaton, much to the audience’s howls of disbelieving laughter. Claire Gandy also does some very funny comic turns as Beline, although her lines were occasionally lost through somewhat poor enunciation.
The most impressive actor in the cast is Matt Butcher as Beralde, which is saying something since his role is, comparatively speaking, the “straight man” in this farce. However, Butcher does get an opportunity to flex his comedic muscles earlier in the piece when doubling as Thomas’ grotesque father Diafoirerhoea. Nevertheless, the show is undoubtedly stolen by Lindsey Chapman as the perky, wisecracking Toinette. She plays the role with great gusto and a keen sense of just the correct amount of hamminess required for a Molière to work effectively. Every time Chapman walks on stage the energy of the piece picks up considerably.
Indeed, energy levels are precisely what was a bit off with this production, which had notable lulls between the big laughs. Although first night nerves might excuse some of this, one is nevertheless tempted to wonder if Andrew Castle’s direction might have been tighter at times, as this production has many high points that are sadly let down by flat moments. On the whole, though, Phoenix Theatre’s presentation is an entertaining one.
For those who like Molière, and especially for those who’ve never seen him, check out The Hypochondriac.
Phoenix Theatre Company presents
A new version by Richard Bean
ZENITH THEATRE | Cnr Railway and McIntosh Streets, Chatswood
14 -28 July 2007
Wednesday to Saturday 8pm and Sundays 5pm
$23 / $18
MCA-tix.com or 1300 306 776