The Hypochondriac deserves the hype

Art & Lit Stage

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“Anal vetting.”

It is fitting that the above phrase, funny in almost any context, is pronounced within 30 seconds of the start of Milk and Two Sugars’ utterly ridiculous and rollicking production of The Hypochondriac, Richard Bean’s 2004 adaptation of Molière’s last play.  Spoken by an inspired Kieran Ahern as Argan, the play’s titular protagonist, the phrase is one of the first hints that this is a production that has left political correctness, plausibility and anything resembling good taste back in the 17th century where it belongs.

As the show’s title suggests, the inexplicably wealthy Argan thinks he’s really, really sick, but the only thing that’s actually wrong with him is that he lacks anything resembling common sense. His inveterate gullibility leaves him susceptible to manipulation by quack doctors, a scheming second wife and her solicitor/lover, his housekeeper, his daughter, and essentially anyone else who crosses his path.

There is a suitably contrived plot. Argan’s daughter Angelique, played with admirable restraint and innocence by Alice Sandelson, has fallen in love with Keelan Kember’s Cléante. Unfortunately, Argan has arranged for her to be married off to the (literally) drooling Thomas Diafoirerhoea, soon to become a doctor just like his esteemed father. Meanwhile, Argan’s philandering wife Beline (played with a perpetual evil sneer by a comically seductive Melita Cameron-Wood) does everything in her power to extort as much money as possible from Argan before his death—which, if you believe Argan, is imminent. The only truly sane one of the bunch is Toinette the nursemaid (portrayed by Georgia Bruce), who scurries about clutching a feather duster while sporting a knowing smirk and raised eyebrows throughout seemingly the entire play.

There are no weak links among the players, all of whom genuinely appear to be having a good time shouting indecent things at each other and wreaking general mayhem. Of particular note is Cameron Abery’s stunted Thomas, as Abery’s lisp, constant sniffles, head lilt and wiry slapstick energy combine to make Thomas out to be a thoroughly repugnant youth—which, of course, he is. And Ahern plays the role of Argan with an ironically outsized vitality and lordliness that belie his supposed feebleness and febrility, as he shouts for help at the top of his lungs and waves his cane around like a sceptre in between his daily enemas.

Much credit is also due to director Charlotte Fraser. Fresh off an assistant directorship of Milk and Two Sugars’ acclaimed production of Arcadia, Fraser cleverly orchestrates moments of awkward silence that reflect the production’s charming self-consciousness, and frees her cast to embrace any and all forms of physical comedy.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not a flawless production. For one thing, it’s simply too long to run without an intermission. And while the occasional moments in which cast members broke the fourth wall and played directly to the audience for laughs was certainly in keeping with the spirit of the play, the conceit was employed so infrequently that it felt oddly out of place.

These are minor issues, though. Somewhere under the streets of Paris, Molière is probably rolling in his grave.

Let him. This is way too much fun.

The Hypochondriac is showing at the Keble O’Reilly until the 16th November. More information at tickets are available here.

PHOTO/ MIlk and Two Sugars