Michael Portillo - Playing doctor

Theatre - An updated French satire is flush with toilet humour, writes Michael Portillo

The Hyp

Can you believe that Moliere wrote a play called The Hypochondriac in which he took the title role, and that on the fourth night he started coughing on stage (which people discounted as part of the performance) and promptly died? In this new version of the play, by Richard Bean, Moliere is increasingly drawn into his own creation. Smoky candelabra above the actors hint that we are watching one of those first performances when the playwright took the lead, though the language is perfect 21st-century English.

Henry Goodman is stunning as the hypochondriac, Argan. He has a glori- ous face for comedy. The whites of his eyes bulge alarmingly, looming out from beneath a ludicrous nightcap. Goodman's legs and even bottom are repeatedly on show, gangly and mercifully fast-moving. His energy is extraordinary, for Argan runs about continuously despite all his supposed maladies.

His foil is the maid Toinette, played with equal vigour by Lyndsey Marshal. Their relationship is highly unconventional for a master and servant (though by no means romantic or sexual). They trade elaborate multi-barrelled insults. She has wonderful wit and spark. The slightly built Marshal has great stage presence: our eyes follow her around the set and a single laugh draws attention from the action back to Toinette. Her verve helps to ignite the play.

In truth, The Hypochondriac is a slight piece. Built around the central character is a weakish plot about his daughter Angelique's wish to marry the man of her dreams and his plan to have her marry a doctor so that free medical care can be forever at hand.

None the less, Bean has written very funny dialogue that produces explosions of laughter. To enjoy it you have to like lavatorial humour, because it comes by the bucketful. Argan is enthroned for much of the play on a magnificently elaborate commode. With astonishing frequency, Toinette is required to investigate what results he has produced, and lifts them out with a ladle to facilitate close inspection. As Argan says, it's like getting bad news in the post: he prefers that someone else be the first to read the letter. Specimen jars of Argan's excrement adorn the tops of his cupboards and bookcases all around Giles Cadle's simple set. Toinette converses with Angelique's beau while carelessly agitating a jar in one hand. During arguments, slops from a chamber pot spatter over the stage.

A whole scene is devoted to a fight over Argan's colonic irrigation. His brother and his apothecary wrestle with a giant syringe that one inserts and the other extracts, repeatedly, with no concern for the patient's comfort, while Goodman's plastic face registers the sensations.

Good supporting performances are delivered by Carey Mulligan as Ange-lique and especially by Kris Marshall as her beloved Cleante. They improvise an increasingly improbable opera in front of her father as a means of expressing their love to each other without (they hope) arousing his suspicions. It is a delightful scene for Bean to have inserted into this farce and the two actors pull it off nicely.

The man that Argan wants her to marry, one Thomas Diafoirerhoea (John Marquez), is an idiot. He learns long speeches to deliver to his prospective fiancee and stepmother-in-law. But his compliments are hilariously misplaced. He wishes, for example, that he could have been an egg in the older lady's Fallopian tubes. Marquez performs in a pair of Day-Glo blue shoes, with lank black hair, and his awkward body executes a series of ludicrous shuffles. It is very funny.

Argan's physician, Dr Purgon, is continuously discussed but makes just one fleeting appearance towards the play's end. Simon Gregor makes the most of his tiny cameo role with a magnificent display of temper as the quack takes umbrage and foolishly sacks his patient and cash cow.

Moliere apparently had it in for doctors. He attacks them for being men of the arts rather than of science. Thomas is commended for being a creature of no imagination whatsoever, with a dislike of progress, and therefore ideally suited for the profession. His rejection of the theory of circulation of the blood ranks with those who deny evolution today. Certainly, in those days knowledge of Latin was regarded as a more essential qualification to practise than any understanding of anatomy. Doctors' beliefs about the causes of and cures for illness were based strongly on theories developed in ancient Greece. And for all their quackery, their charges were high.

In Bean's version, Argan is himself admitted to the profession, unqualified like all the others. The induction scene is quite different in character from everything else in the play and develops into a jarringly macabre musical number. Despite this, the director Lindsay Posner has created a thoroughly entertaining evening.

Booking on 020 7359 4404 to 7 January

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