Vaut le détour

A journey around Paris's theatrical fringe.

Ah, Paris! The city where the size of your dog is inversely proportionate to the size of your purse. Le Marais, (or "swamp") where I dipped in my sample jar to check out the state of fringe theatre, is very much a district of the small dog. And yet, its medieval streets have a strong tradition of outsider status -- and were hence overlooked by the zealous boulevard builders -- first as a Jewish ghetto, and now as a thriving gay community. And maybe this edginess explains the dozen or so of small, well-supported theatres operating in a relatively confined area.

First, some of the theatre in Paris that, with only 36 hours at my disposal, I sadly didn't get round to see: Face au Paradis, starring Eric Cantona, who continues his mutation from footballer to actor. The irresistibly titled Amour et Chipolatas. And also a dark and harrowing play called Extinctionafter the novel by Thomas Bernhard, which was recommended to me by a psychiatrist in a café. Perhaps he recommends this play a lot, hoping for custom from traumatized theatre-goers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my sample jar contained results that were good, bad and indifferent. And so, in reverse order, we'll start with the indifferent. Le Point Virgule is a well-regarded venue for one man shows, and Tuesday evening's offering was Breton performer Arnaud Cosson. The theatre claims to seat 120, but I can only imagine that this is achieved by patrons sitting in one another's laps. So, an intimate space, then, rather like cosying up in someone's front room.

The audience certainly seemed to feel at home: an informal mix of children, smart Parisiens and a smattering of stout mesdames from the provinces, clearly felt they could comment freely on the proceedings. Cosson's style of carrying on conversations with imaginary interlocutors, whether as a boulangère or a school drugs awareness speaker, was occasionally scuppered by their willingness to jump into his pauses. Often it was just a sort of comfortable commentary on Cosson's reflections: "Oh la!" or "voilà!" -- a very different style of heckle from the beery harassment of a London comedy club.

Cosson himself is likeable enough, and lopes round the stage amusingly enough. He does passable impersonations of French types, but I was at times not absolutely sure of the tastefulness of his material. Maybe I was missing a layer of irony. One of his numbers was a mock love-song: "Si tu étais une ville/Tu serais Chernobyl". Some things just aren't funny in any language.

On to the Espace Marais, where I witnessed the murder of a man who's been dead for 300 years: Molière died all over again, at the hands of his countrymen, in this staging of Le Médecin Malgré Lui. A limp and embarrassing affair, the show was full of the sort of strap-on physicality that passes for genuine élan in some quarters. In particular, the direction apparently demanded gratuitous scrambling up ladders to an elevated gallery, unencumbered by any promptings from plot. No wonder poor Sganarelle was spuming with sweat by the end of the performance. Every so often a stab of 'Pearl and Dean' style music was broadcast, presumably to enliven the proceedings. It didn't. I kept myself awake puzzling over who the spooky, frilly heroine reminded me of. I got it by the end of the play: Bride of Chucky. And at 38 euros, c'est le rip-off!

Finally, what a pleasure to alight at the Café de la Gare, where Sébastien Azzopardi directs his own play, co-written with Sacha Danino, Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours. Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, the show is described as a "road movie" in the brochure, which captures the mischievousness of this cartoonish, pacey, seamless performance. A delightfully silly script is spiked with contemporary references, and some pitiless parodies, particularly of les anglais. I should have been offended, but I was laughing too hard. Even our own dear queen makes an appearance, her arm on permanent swivel-mode.

Such is their sure-footed timing and rhythm that the performers move like well-tempered parts to a single mechanism. Not a second is wasted: the ingeniously simple set contains a small stage-within-a-stage, which means the actors can swoosh the curtains across, like Superman in a phone booth, and change the furniture, or a costume, whilst another scene is being played out in front. Even those with very limited French would surely enjoy the expressivity and contagious high spirits of this show. Worth a detour.

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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain