Let them raze the Everyman to the ground and rebuild it. I’ll not shed too many tears over its functional, bum-unfriendly form. But let anyone moot taking a wrecking ball to the Playhouse and I’d sellotape myself to the safety curtain with some improvised device of mentos and coke bottles. It is a perfect little theatre. And Tartuffe, with its strong ensemble cast, handsome set, whip-smart script and sure-footed, sublime direction is tailor made for it.

A hundred years old and counting, the Playhouse has never felt more alive. And it’s spirited, home-grown productions like Tartuffe that prove there’s plenty of life behind the old proscenium arch yet.

The theatrical event of 08, Tartuffe is Roger McGough’s masterwork. Forget the sputtering fountains outside – this is language that dances, fizzes and splashes: verse that’s elastic, gymnastic and utterly fantastic.

The tale – based on Moliere’s 17th century comedy of hubris and hypocrisy – recounts the antics of a seemingly pious zealot who contrives to wheedle his way into the affections (and wordly goods) of Orgon. A manouvre so blatant and brazen that every member of the household can see through the deception: all, that is, save for Orgon and his social climbing matriarchal mam.

Moliere’s razor-shop observations of the folly of pride and religious prejudice was too close for comfort for the French court – and the play was censored almost immediately.

Fast forward 400 years and McGough’s deft retelling bubbles with timeless truths, told with a lightness of touch that’s joyous and smart – and directed with verve and fluidity by Gemma Bodinetz. The cast – 2/3rds original, but headed up with a new Tartuffe (Colin Tierney) – simply dazzles: it would have been so easy to have too much fun with this, but they dispense the silliness with just the right amount of restraint.

It’s wickedly funny, yes, but McGough leaves us in no doubt of where he stands on that particular brand of bloody duplicity practiced in the name of religion. Those who claim to shun the trappings of success, but seek their glory through ‘consecrated swords’ are marked out for the play’s singularly affecting sermon.

There’s a current argument raging – set in motion by Mark Kermode – that rails against the dumbness of summer blockbusters. The swift return of Tartuffe is blockbusting confirmation that, to succeed in this city you don’t have to cynically resort to the self-referencing, lumbering and leaden laughs of Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels. We’re smarter than that: as a city, as theatre goers, and as lovers of a finely tuned phrase.

McGough’s playful, warm and intelligent cocktail of the vernacular and the iambic, the way the rhythm and cadence of his rhymes bounce and slap unpredictably, like rogue waves against the Pier Head, and his winning way with a deliberately clunky couplet separate Tartuffe from the pantomimes and Scouseploitation productions.

It is, in short, a triumph.

David Lloyd

Tartuffe,
Liverpool Playhouse, til September 17

pics: Robert Day.