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At the Old Vic, until 5th March.
Feydeau’s classic farce, written in 1907, and directed in this revival by Richard Eyre, is a product of the French “belle époque” – and how! It looks beautiful (thanks to costume designer Sue Blane and set wizard Rob Howell) and plays out like clockwork, with the exquisite figures of Raymonde Chandebise (Lisa Dillon) and her husband Victor (Tom Hollander, doubling as the servant Poche) popping in and out of doors and revolving beds like figures on a cuckoo clock.
Those who have heard the phrase “like a French farce” but have never seen one in action will not be disappointed by this superb-looking, fast-paced production. Though it starts at a relatively leisurely tempo, with the set-up in Act One of Raymonde’s suspicions of her husband’s infidelity, and her honey-trap plan to entice him to a rendezvous with an anonymous female admirer, by the second half the pace is frenetic and relentless, as though all the actors are on fast-forward (and possibly epic amounts of uppers). Add to this situation a randy nephew with a speech impediment, a drunken hotel porter, a priapic Prussian, a jealous Spaniard and a serious case of mistaken identity, and you get a fizzing cocktail of comedy, frothy and refreshing.
Thanks to Victor’s modesty, Raymonde’s plan goes wrong almost as soon as it’s hatched; he’s convinced that her love letter must be meant for his best friend, ladies’ man Tournel (a louche and suave Jonathan Cake), and sends Tournel to the assignation at the Hotel Coq D’Or (Golden Cock – not all the gags are this subtle).
Cue uproar, lots of (attempted) shagging, and a comedy of errors in which inebriated servant Poche, the dead spit of Victor, is repeatedly mistaken for M. Chandebise and vice-versa.
The dialogue is rendered into credible turn-of-the-century English by John Mortimer’s translation, and sparkles with some snappy zingers, but the choral lines that pepper Act 2 could perhaps have been assigned to single characters, as the effect of several actors shouting the same phrase at once is bizarre and unnatural (rather than heightened and farcical) and, if I’m honest, a little bit panto.
The plot is far too Byzantine to summarise here, but rest assured that a good time is had by all (well, except poor Victor and Poche) and the extraordinary energy of the well-drilled cast explodes off the stage in a production that is vicariously exhausting to watch. Particular mention must go to Tom Hollander’s superb understudy Greg Baldock, who substituted in the dual/role of Victor/Poche on the night I saw it, and owned the stage, getting a deserved ovation at the end.
Raucous and recommended: catch A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic until March 5th.