Knightley shines in biting satire

Theatre - First Night
Comedy Theatre

FOR HER theatrical debut, Keira Knightley plays a Hollywood starlet accused of the same beauty-over-talent deficiencies with which Knightley herself is regularly charged. And boy does she give it back.

Her character, megastar Jennifer, is happily surrounded by toadying sycophants in her London hotel. The misanthrope of the title is her suitor Alceste (Damian Lewis), a Victor Meldrew-esque playwright who, despite being so appalled by the flattery and fakery he encounters that he resolves to withdraw from society, keeps returning to demand her singular attention.

Moliere’s 17th century original farce attacked the foibles of French high society. Taking celebrity culture as the modern equivalent, Martin Crimp’s version – written in ingenious rhyming verse – takes swipe after viciously hilarious swipe at some pretty soft targets, but it’s Knightley’s symbolic presence at the heart of it that gives it piquancy. She rises impressively to the occasion, dishing out acid sarcasm and honeyed insults with real poise. Lewis is on terrific form as Alceste, and special mention must also go to Tim McMullan’s deliciously conceited theatre critic, Covington.

The play is so thick in irony, cynicism and knowingness that it becomes a pretty superficial thing itself, but that’s just one more in-joke in many. Still, it’s an enjoyably witty chamber piece, and for Knightley, a satisfying V-sign to the naysayers.