Anyone slipping in five minutes late to The Hypochondriac, to be greeted by songs about foot fungus and wee, would be forgiven for thinking they’d mistakenly booked tickets for Horrible Histories.
This brand new Theatre Royal Bath production of Moliere’s celebrated comedy doesn’t shy away from the indelicate subject matter – namely one man’s obsession with his bowels. It opens (ahem) with an arch musical number about ailments and body parts before introducing us to Argan (Tony Robinson), a miserly minor aristocrat convinced he’s afflicted with every ailment known to man. This view is encouraged by his enema-happy quack doctors, who gleefully shove probes where the sun doesn’t shine while lining their pockets, and gold-digger wife, irritably waiting for him to fulfil his promise and pop his clogs and leave her his estate.
The staging, like the story, centres round Argan, who sits for the most part in a wheelchair, gown riding dangerously high as he flaps and fidgets, hollering for his nursemaid Toinette to empty his pot. What looks like a classical drawing room, lined with attractive glass apothecary jars, on closer inspection turns out to be a shrine to poo; the jars each containing samples of his stools, displayed with almost paternal pride.
Also afflicted by Argan’s health obsession is his daughter Angelique. Aged 16, she’s fiercely in love with Cleante, a handsome apprentice, against the wishes of her father who has a young but slimy doctor in mind for her instead. One of the play’s funniest scenes is surely the improvised opera by which the pair of lovers declare their affections through feeble rhymes and limited vocal ability.
Robinson is suitably grouchy and deluded as Argan, and Imogen Stubbs plays the two-faced wife with wonderful villainy and sulkiness. But it’s Toinette, played by Tracie Bennet (last here in the magnificent End of the Rainbow), who wins over the audience with her natural comic flair. Like a Shakespearean clown, she teases and taunts her master, but ultimately saves him from himself by engineering a ruse to reveal false characters for what they are and open Argan’s eyes to the error of his ways.
The Hypochondriac is a knowing wink at the 17th century’s Medieval approach to medicine, given a slightly whacky updating in this enthusiastic production. A little too lavatorial for my liking, but the patient is not without hope: just make sure you’ve brushed up on your notes (or read this feature) to get the most out of the meta ending.
The play runs until 15 November, 7.45pm (2.30pm Thursday & Saturday matinee). Tickets from £15.