Locked away in the cold, dark, dank basement of Hazelrigg House is not the most comfortable of locations but I can’t think of anywhere more perfect for Nostalgia Theatre Company’s production of Paris La Nuit. Even the stale smell of cigarettes and vin de pays that greets you conjures up a murky, tawdry bar in an unfashionable district of the French capital, where Jean Clement plays jazz for his regulars until war comes and he signs up. But on his return years later, he is startled by the appearance of a young orphaned boy, Mathieu, living in his old bar. Traumatised into speechlessness, terrified of his shadow, he’s just trying to find a place to survive. Kind-hearted Clement can’t kick the boy out, so he gets him to wait tables in return for his bed and board. The friendship develops between the two as Mathieu comes to regard Clement more and more as a father figure, but is it a bond that can withstand Clement’s past catching up with him?
For a period feel, this absolutely scores ten out of ten. Rickety tables, odd vintage crystal wine glasses, Parisian pictures, open cigarette cases, plus a plinky-plonk piano and a bar that has seen better days – the attention to detail is formidable et magnifique. With memories of Piaf, and an impromptu performance of Charles Trenet’s La Mer, the whole performance has a Gallic charm and vulnerability that truly stands out. There are moments of humour too, such as in the boy’s reaction to Clement’s liaison with a lady of the night, and his earnest, scrupulous cleaning of the tables.
Samual Gellard’s performance as Clement is authoritative, calm, measured, sensitive and you really feel you know exactly what makes him tick. Either his French accent is terrible, or, he’s doing a brilliant impersonation of someone from a region of France where the accent is terrible! Either way he still delivers much of the dialogue in fast, confident French, deliberately difficult enough to challenge any audience member who got A level French over forty years ago. But I was able to follow much of the dialogue, so kudos to both him and me for that. The unnamed young actor who plays Mathieu is absolutely brilliant, his facial expressions providing all the eloquence he needs to get his meanings across. And the two of them together provided some surprisingly touching moments. That must have been cigarette smoke in my eye.
At times I did find the story a little hard to follow; I wasn’t quite sure who it was who was catching up with Clement, and whether the money being extorted was simply a protection racket or a blackmail for something he’d done. But, at the end of the day, it really didn’t matter, and any fog in the storyline was a perfect reflection of the fog in his jazz bar. Two charming and convincing performances that waft you away to a distant world of the chanteuse, the raconteur and late night Pernod. Bien fait, mes amis!