Fear not – despite the title, this play isn’t going to throw you into an existential quandary or bog you down with Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. In fact, despite holding an MA in Philosophy (and one of her previous plays being an introduction to Locke, Berkley and Hume) playwright Fauzia Rahman doesn’t blind us with concepts and ideas, instead leading us by the hand through a series of basic ethical dilemmas framed within a good old English farce. It’s an oasis of traditional silliness set apart from the experimental, overly intellectual and downright odd that, for better or worse, makes up a lot of fringe theatre.
The play sees moral, good natured philosopher Gerald Angel (Anthony Curran) arrive home from a conference in Brighton racked with guilt. You see, in an entirely out-of-character turn of events, he apparently got drunk and woke up to find a blonde naked in his bed. Fearing what he’s going to tell his wife Molly (Caroline Langston), he confides in best pal Tom (Clive Greenwood) who then goes on to say he might have an illegitimate daughter, Annabelle (Natasha Staples). As these things happen in plays such as this, Annabelle happens to bump into Gerald’s son Henry (Ed Williams) – and guess what? She’s an attractive blonde and a fan of the professor. Cue the usual misunderstandings, lies and running through doors that your normal farce.
Let me make one thing clear – if you’ve read that outline, you can probably guess the outcome of the entire thing before you go in. Twisty and turny this ain’t, with characters painted in broad strokes and bright colours. Curran is excellent as Gerald, the nervy, preoccupied and dishevelled absent-minded professor. Meanwhile Greenwood’s Tom is a total Jack-the-lad despite his dapper, debonair appearance – a loveable rogue but one with a good heart. While it zips along well enough, there are a few incredibly clunky bits of set-up dialogue that makes me think Rahman has forgotten to show, not tell. Lines such as “This is me, Tom, your best friend of 46 years” or “Don’t say you’ve forgotten your son Henry” are unnecessary and particularly forced.
Where there is more subtlety, though, is in Rahman thrusting the moral quandaries at the forefront, with the “grown-ups” frankly being worse than their children. Moral relativism are the words of the day, with Gerald and Tom representing two ends of the spectrum – the saint and the philanderer. It brings to mind Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in more than just the title – for its humour and bed-hopping subject matter The Miller’s Tale in particular. And what was the Canterbury Tales on the whole if not a treatise on this relativism?
Clocking in at a slight 45 minutes, it nonetheless is perfectly pacy. Director Chris Hislop hits the sense of urgency needed to make a farce fly – there’s nothing worse than sluggish, flabby direction sucking the life out of an otherwise sparky script. As you’d expect, characters miss each other by seconds in some precision blocking, keeping everything light. The overall design is timeless, set as it is in a rose garden with our misguided heroes donning boaters, panama hats and floral frocks – a mobile phone the only real hint of modernity.
While The Philosopher’s Tale won’t set the world on fire, its unashamedly conventional, warm and familiar style will endear it certainly to older audiences – but also entertain allcomers.