Madame Melville

  • Date:
    Thursday, November 2, 2000
    Review by:
    Darren Dalglish

    The story, similar, yet far superior to "The Graduate", concerns a 15 year old boy, 'Carl', who is seduced by his French teacher, 'Madame Melville'. However, it is not as sordid as one may first imagine. It is a beautiful coming together of two people who are in need of each other, both for very different reasons. The delicate subject is handled sensitively by Nelson, who does not dwell on the 'sex' part of the show. This is so refreshing!! It shows you don't need to have naked flesh running around the stage to be effective. The description of the sex act by Culkin is more puissant.

    Macaulay Culkin, most famous as the child star in the 'Home Alone' movies, has only recently returned to acting after taking a nearly six year hiatus. To stage his comeback in the West End is a masterstroke for Culkin as he defies those critics who believed his acting career was finished, like so many child actors of the past. At the age of twenty he has certainly come of age on the West End stage and established himself as a strong, solid competent actor. French actress, Irene Jacob, is also making her West End debut at the age of 34. She has starred in many films including Kieslowski's 'Three Colours Red', and opposite Wesley Snipes in 'U.S. Marshals'. Her portrayal of 'Madame Melville' is warm and sexy, without being flagrant! There is also a delightful performance from Madeleine Potter as 'Ruth', the neighbour, who provides some comic moments.

    This play has received great reviews from most of the popular press….NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD was very impressed by Macaulay Culkin's performance, saying, "A star is reborn with Macaulay's West End debut." He believes that Culkin's performance saved the play saying, "He raises Richard Nelson's slight, underdeveloped play above the level of prurience and cheap laughter into which it could easily have slipped and stayed." SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "In a deteriorating London theatre, it's good to have a play to think about. …..We get an American teenager (Macaulay Culkin ` better than he ever has been on film)…" CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Culkin, … proves to be absolutely superb in a memory play of wonderful delicacy, tenderness and humour." He goes on to say , "This is one of those evenings when you become suddenly aware that you are in the presence of something rare and special." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES describes the play as a "..pleasing if sometimes underpowered variation on the theme of The Graduate." Kate Kellaway for THE OBSERVER says, "As Carl, Macaulay Culkin is brilliantly cast. ". ROBERT GORE-LANGTON for THE DAILY EXPRESS got really excited by Irene Jacob, "We are talking real French coffee- sipping sex appeal here……It's a tonic just watching her skip around the stage barefooted with that je ne sais quoi." However he found the play "wafer thin" and described Culkin as "a bleached chimpanzee". JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES hated the play describing it as "bloodcurdlingly dreadful" He said of Culkin, " He speaks monotonously, in a slightly nasal voice that sounds completely untrained." He goes on to say , "This is easily one of the most inept plays I have seen by an experienced playwright"

    Richard Nelson, who won an Olivier Award for Best Play for 'Goodnight Children Everywhere' at the Barbican last year, has another hit on his hands. Lasting just over one and half hours without an interval, this is a beautiful and touching play that is worthy of its West End run.


    Next review by Tom Keatinge
    Feb 2001

    With only three weeks left to run, it is rather late in the day to be seeing Richard Nelson’s Madame Melville, at the Vaudeville, for the first time. Would the production be worth the plaudits it has received from several notable sources? Has Macaulay Culkin really graduated from innocently snaring villains as an eight year old, to being seduced by his literature teacher from the American school in Paris? We would see . . .

    Set in Paris in 1966, the piece opens with Carl (Culkin) reminiscing about the time his family moved to Paris from Ohio, and about the way in which this experience helped open his eyes to the world. It is to be, as they say, a journey of discovery for him, a journey on which Madame Melville (Irène Jacob), his literature teacher, will guide him. And so one evening his journey begins as he finds himself the only one left in Madame Melville’s flat, late at night, after the other students have all left. The story develops slowly from here as Madame Melville tests Carl’s innocence on everything from art and music, to love.

    This should have been a focused study, allowing us to observe the interaction between the two characters as they learn about each other and as Madame Melville slowly seduces Carl. Yet the acting was sadly one sided. Culkin seemed almost uncomfortable on stage, his voice restricted to a monotone, which, for some reason (inexcusable in such a small space) was miked. Opposite him, Irène Jacob, whilst strong and convincing as the seductive school mistress, seemed to struggle, with little chemistry obvious. Not until the arrival of Madame Melville’s American next door neighbour (Ruth – Madeleine Potter) does the piece truly come alive.

    Whilst some of the acting is disappointing, the staging is beautifully intimate, with intelligent lighting focusing the action in Madame Melville’s apartment, whilst developments beyond the four walls of her flat are recounted as memories by Carl to the audience.

    So, did I think the plaudits were indeed well merited? Maybe. The play is both entertaining and thought provoking, and some of the acting was certainly strong. However, to say that Macaulay Culkin has truly graduated from silver-screen-child-star to West End tour-de-force would be sadly overstated.

    Tom Keatinge


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