Fly me to the moon

16 February 2008

Ring Round the Moon, The Playroom, London, 3rd February-24th May, 19:30

4 1/2 stars

Reviewer Ryan Roark

Ring Round the Moon is a farce reminiscent of Noel Coward, but with a socialist bent. All the action takes place during one evening in the 1950s, in the conservatory on the estate of Mme Desmortes, who is hosting a ball. As the play opens, Mme Desmortes’s unscrupulous but excessively charming nephew Hugo is hatching a plan to break off the engagement between his sensitive twin brother Frederic and a fiery heiress, Diana Messerschmann. Hugo believes Diana does not love Frederic, though Frederic loves her to distraction. His plan, therefore, is to employ a beautiful dancer named Isabelle to pretend to be the niece of another guest at the ball and to outshine all the other guests, so that Frederic will fall for her. Unfortunately, Isabelle immediately falls for Hugo’s charms, despite his open heartlessness.

There is a constant undercurrent of social commentary about class and money in this play, focused on Isabelle’s feelings of not belonging and on Diana’s father’s inability to enjoy life despite his great wealth—he eats nothing but noodles without butter or salt, and he is unconcerned that his mistress is cheating on him and not-so-secretly despises him. Though it is the most consistent motif in the play, the obsession with wealth and poverty is overshadowed by the motley crew of characters and the brilliant dialogue.

Among the people at the ball are Diana, whose delivers some of her monologues so quickly she sounds like an auctioneer; Mme Desmortes, always eager to hatch a plan and order people about from her wheelchair; her companion Capulet, who is at first meek and reserved but comes out of her shell (“I’m so excited, like a little yeasty bun in a good oven!”); Messerschmann’s totally psychotic mistress Lady India, who fantasises about leaving him and losing all of her money so that she would have to scrub floors and wash her lover down with a tiny sponge each night; and Isabelle’s embarrassing mother who explains her presence by claiming the be the Italian “Countess Funella,” goddaughter to the Pope. Of the characters, Isabelle alone delivers very little comedy and stands out a bit as being too straight—though this is no fault of actress Fiona Button, who manages to be radiant, naïve and precocious all at once.

The cast in Sean Mathias’s production is superb. Particularly impressive are Peter Eyre as the humble yet incisive butler, Leigh Lawson as a sympathetically eccentric Messerschmann, and Emily Bruni, who, as Lady India, plays psycho flawlessly. The real standout is JJ Feild in the roles of Hugo and Frederic. He exits stage left as charming, amoral and monomaniacal Hugo only to reenter stage right as lovelorn, moping Frederic, to lament about Hugo: “he’s my double double-crossing me again!” (a feat which, in this theatre, requires Feild to run down three flights of stairs, across the stalls and up again three flights). Hugo is far more engaging than Frederic, as he should be, but even as Frederic, Feild commands the audience’s attention all the time he’s on stage.

When all is said and done, it’s hard to imagine a more fun night at the theatre than Ring Round the Moon at the Playhouse.