Mersey poet Roger McGough’s adaptation of Moliere’s French classic Tartuffe was one of the resounding successes of Capital of Culture year – and the Playhouse knew they were on to a good thing.

They tried it again with The Hypochondriac in 2009 and, because everybody loves a trilogy, have returned for one final outing with their own unique spin on 1666’s courtly smash hit The Misanthrope.

At times, you were aware the source material and finely-crafted verse was deserving of a near-Shakespearean reverence; at others, the deliberately painful puns and scenery-chewing performances were a reminder of the last production on the stage – the rock ‘n’ roll panto.

That duality is not as ridiculous as it may sound, and arguably is what has given the ‘McGoughieres’ their real merit from the start. Playhouse productions directed by the theatre’s own artistic director are – pin me with the Order of the Brown Nose right now – always genuinely something to look forward to. Gemma Bodinetz always brings a real clarity and accessibility to her shows, whether it’s adapting 17th century French morality tales for the masses or asking her audience to sit through a two hour long first act (see last year’s A Streetcar Named Desire).

Twin this with Roger McGough’s often silly, always brilliant, thought-provoking verse, and work that could easily be obscure, over-complicated or just a big old turn off becomes bright, lively and something that all ages can enjoy.

The Misanthrope tells the story of poet Alceste, who becomes so disgusted with the French society of the day, he ‘mounts a one-man crusade against forked tongues, frippery and fakery’. In this role, Colin Tierney excels – part man of principle, part Kevin the Teenager; eyeballing the audience and refusing to speak in rhyme in accordance with the mores of the court.

Alceste is in love with society girl Celimene (Zara Tempest Walters), who is inadvertently – or perhaps not – wooing half of the court. His friend Philinte (McGoughiere alumni Simon Coates, the only one of the company to have appeared in all three plays) is a perfect foil.

In a tale that avoids many of the classic traps of storytelling, Moliere leads the audience on a merry dance, while McGough’s language plays with them further, showing for a final time how this has become a marriage made in heaven.

Compared to the quick-fire wit and action of Tartuffe, The Misanthrope takes a bit more time to tell its tale. Scenes are much longer, and involve much lengthier and more philosophical conversation. It doesn’t always have the sparkle of Tartuffe, but it is engaging and rewarding nonetheless.

With this in mind, the look of this show has as much to do with its success as the content. Michael Taylor’s set, in turns a 17th century drawing room and a kitchy garden, is visually stunning and enhanced wonderfully by Paul Keoghan’s lighting.

The striking, sumptuous costumes from Jacquie Davies were a dressing-up box dream, highlighted most beautifully in a handful of atmospheric, baroque style masked ball sequences.

The Misanthrope (until March 9)
Liverpool Playhouse

Images: Robert Day

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