Theatre: A man caught on the wrong side of history

A nice line in comic irony: Tom Conti and Robert Fox in The Patriotic Traitor

The Patriotic Traitor in Jonathan Lynn’s play at Park Theatre is the 84-year-old Marshal Pétain, the great French commander and acclaimed national hero for his defence of Verdun in 1914. In World War II he surrendered to the Germans and set up a puppet government in Vichy.

When the war ended he was arrested and charged with treason and collaborating with the enemy. Pétain argued that the war was already lost in 1940 and that by signing the armistice he saved Paris from destruction and saved millions of French lives.

The play is also the story of the father-son relationship Pétain had with his ambitious, proud, arrogant and unpopular protégé, Charles de Gaulle. Both did their duty as they saw fit and both had the courage to stand alone. Great soldiers disobey orders.

Pétain backed the wrong side and was reviled. Should he be condemned or exonerated? The script feels like a docudrama written for television, which has been made theatrical by a nice line in comic irony. Lynn directs and the production, excellently acted by Tom Conti and Laurence Fox, well deserves a West End transfer.

Jean Genet (1910-1986), delinquent, thief, poet, novelist and playwright, spent most of his life in reformatories and prison. He had his first critical success in Paris in 1947 with The Maids, a sado-masochistic ritual of servitude and domination played out by two of society’s outcasts. The story is based on a true 1933 murder case in which two servants (who were sisters) killed their mistress for her dresses and jewellery.

There is no point in underplaying when acting in Genet’s plays; but the over-the-top slobbering can become tiresome, and especially in this foul-mouthed translation. But I doubt if this will stop audiences going to Trafalgar Studios see three well-known and clever actors wallowing in rose petals.

Jamie Lloyd’s production has a timely racial twist. Zawe Ashton’s servant behaves like a female drag queen when she is wearing her mistress’s wig and red gown and teetering on high heels. Ozo Adura is her butch, scheming, screaming, murderous sister. Laura Carmichael is their pampered, spoiled, selfish employer, a gangster’s moll.

Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, a jolly, bawdy and very lively Restoration romp, seen last year at Shakespeare’s Globe, has now transferred to Apollo Theatre. Playwright Aphra Behn (the first Englishwoman to earn her living by writing) said of Nell, the famous actress who became Charles II’s favourite mistress, that “it was as if she had been made on purpose to put the whole world into good humour”.

Gemma Arterton is adorable. She has all the requisites for the role: pert beauty, verbal wit and a strong feminist streak. I particularly enjoyed the innuendo and witty sparring with the king (David Sturzaker) and her leading actor, James Hart (Jay Taylor).

Phil Davies’s Firebird at Trafalgar Studios 2 is about sex-trafficking. There are currently 16,500 children at risk of sexual exploitation in England. The script is inspired by criminal activities committed by British Pakistanis in Rochdale. I am not sure who would actually want to watch this play. A film, or better still a documentary, would reach a wider audience and have a greater impact.