Criterion’s three angels appreciated

My Three Angels, December’s Criterion Theatre production, was a great choice to round off another successful year for the local theatre company. Sam and Bella Spewack’s Broadway play, based on Albert Husson’s French original, La Cuisine des Anges, was a delightful comedy, played with verve and obvious enjoyment by a cast comprising both seasoned regulars and relative newcomers.

Though Martin Willis’s late 19th century bourgeois set played it safe, the audience had little difficulty believing itself transported to the living room behind Felix Dulay’s failing general store in Cayenne, French Guiana, around the year 1910. Pete Bagley’s genial but unworldly Felix made it clear from the outset why his business was in trouble, as the redoubtable Madame Parole (Christine Ingall in a gloriously “grande dame” cameo role) swept in, demanding – and getting – yet more credit. But danger threatens. Felix’s domineering, coldly calculating cousin Gaston Lemare (John Fenner) has arrived in Cayenne by ship, and the news from the docks is that he’s angling to take over the business. With him is his nephew Paul (Callum Adey), former suitor of Felix’s daughter Marie-Louise (excellently played by the teenaged Daisy Bloor), but now engaged to another, in what appears to be an arrangement more financially advantageous to Gaston than amorous on Paul’s part.

Into this sticky series of situations descend – literally, as they are repairing the roof – three convicts from the local prison. Never did a more winsome trio set foot on earth on Christmas Eve. In no time, smooth talking author of a crime passionel Jules (an assured performance by Brian Emeney), fast talking conman Joseph (energetically played by Mark Wiszowaty) and young man-of-action Alfred (Jack Hawker, who shed a certain early awkwardness as the action developed) have cooked dinner and the books, as well as ringing up some unlikely sales – strictly cash only – in the shop.

But when the comic atmosphere takes a darker turn with the arrival of Gaston and Paul at the house, the “angels” have to work a bit harder to steer things financial and amatory to a successful conclusion. If the script, despite some excellent comic lines, was occasionally a bit clunky, director Nicole Firth hardly let it show – using the angels’ verve to keep things moving at a lively pace. Alfred managed to exude enough menace, ably assisted by his pet snake Adolphe, to suggest that a sticky end beckoned for Gaston. And so it eventually proved.

But in the long night while they wait to see whether the unscrupulous businessman will emerge from his bedroom or not, there’s space for reflection, too. On whether seeming virtue may merely cloak a secret criminality more cold-hearted than that for which the “angels” have been convicted in open court; and whether there is hope for them in life ? There’s just a hint, too, that Felix’s respectable wife Emilie (a nuanced performance from Annie Gay) might hanker after the suave Jules. In the end, with the prim and self-righteous Paul having met a – frankly – timely end after an unexpected appointment with Adolphe, it is left to the dashing lieutenant Espoir (Alexander Mushore) to suggest that Marie-Louise’s future may be about to get brighter. A comedy after all, then – and one the audience seems warmly to have appreciated.