A great fear of mine is really awkward situations. When I started dating an Actor (capital A) I was most afraid of seeing him perform and having to pretend I liked it. When I was asked to review the play Panique au Ministère (“Panic at the Ministry”), which is showing at the ANU Arts Centre for four days this week, I temporarily forgot how potentially anxiety-provoking this could be and instead thought, “Cool, French.”

Luckily, I do not have to employ any of my non-existent theatrical skills to wholeheartedly endorse Panique au Ministère. Because yes, it is Cool, it is French, and it is also a seriously enjoyable performance.

The story is of Gabrielle (Claire Seton), who works for the Minister of Education and doubles as a single mother. She is a strong woman who revels in being surrounded by idiots and managing her beloved chaos – constantly juggling the various madcap people around her. These include her legwarmer-wearing maneater mother (Lauren Klein), who has a penchant for dance instructors; her ridiculous boss (Tom Westland); his refusing-to-be-ex-wife (Jen Taylor); her entitled brat of a daughter (Clare McGrath); and the cleaning guy, Éric (Christian Dent). There are enough characters dashing around to easily maintain your attention.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, there are English subtitles throughout for those who don’t speak French (or, like me, are in denial that they’re not fluent). So don’t skip out on Panique au Ministère because of language – it’s completely manageable for even the total monolingual! And you would be missing out on an excellent piece of theatre.

The play is genuinely funny, and having to read along certainly does not detract from it at all. And I don’t mean funny in a laughing-to-yourself kind of way, but actually funny in a full-on laughing way – laughing at physical movements, costumes, and wonderfully over-the top characterisation. The subtitles are great – they aren’t too long and they aren’t awkward translations. Each of the characters fits into a stereotype, but instead of seeming predictable, they are all full of joie de vivre. From workaholic, bratty teenager, and cougar older mother, through bitter ex-wife and spineless boss with an attitude, they all execute it perfectly. In the performance I saw, Tom Westland’s face was consistently bright red with emphasis. The whole thing mercifully feels much closer to The Office than to, say, the American version of Kath and Kim.

The French are cool, sexy people. They embodied hipster before it was hipster. Everyone wants to be able to say, “I was at this French play last week,” but they also want to enjoy it. Panique au Ministère is absolutely parfait for upping all of the jaded french cred. Watch it.

24-27 April at 7:30pm
(Plus a possible matinée performance, 2:30pm Sat 27th, depending on demand)
Drama Lab at the ANU Arts Centre, Union Court, ANU
Tickets $15

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