How to Win Friends and Influence People: Hytner's Update on a Restoration Classic Mocks the Modern Metropolitan Elite

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The Man of Mode

Olivier Theatre, London SE1

The French are a laughing stock. At least, they are in London theatres, where currently you can bring someone--anyone--on to the stage sporting a Gauloise or a beret, and the house will collapse. On the popular front, Spamalot does its Gallic-teasing using a parade of cliches from LeCoq clowns to Piaf gamines, while, over at the high end, Covent Garden's fabulous La Fille du Regiment had a giant painting of a French cockerel descend behind the chorus members as they sang about la patrie in silly accents.

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This modern-dress production of George Etherege's Restoration comedy The Man of Mode, now at the Olivier Theatre, joins in with the Gallic disrespect. In fact, it piles it on. Like Charles II, the titular hero--Sir Fopling Flutter--has returned to London following a stay across the Channel. He is thus transformed into un homme cavalier, dressed in tassels and glitter, scented with Egoiste, weighed down with absurd mannerisms and with a French dance troupe in tow.

Rory Kinnear heroically manages to keep a lid on the role, though he causes near-hysteria every time he triple-kisses someone, waggles his tasselled cuffs or speaks Franglais. Just as well, because The Man of Mode is a pointed and chilly comedy about a wholly shallow world. Monty Python it is not, and Kinnear's combination of vanity and vulnerability sets off the razor-sharp society in which Sir Fopling has become embroiled.

The director, Nicholas Hytner, updated 17th-century London last year with The Alchemist, but this production makes Ben Jonson's Jacobean romp seem quaintly innocent. The city in which Sir Fopling arrives is a debauched, promiscuous place, rife with malicious gossip and teeming with sexual intrigue, starring a sophisticated, multiracial array of wealthy hedonists who view the countryside--"even in painted landscapes"--with horror.

Purists might shudder at tweaks that Hytner has made to the text, which was written in 1676. People mouth "Love you!" at each other and drop references to Diptyque candles; this Man of Mode leaps out at us from the pages of Heat, not the paintings of Lely. However, if you want Restoration theatre to be more than historical evidence, such an intelligent and witty refocus is the ideal solution. …