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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
A FLEA IN HER EAR
at the Old Vic

A MOMENT OF ECSTASY
By JOHN NATHAN

  Jonathan Cake and Tom Hollander/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

This is the third time John Mortimer’s translation of Georges Feydeau’s farce has been staged at the Old Vic. The first, in 1966, is rated as one of the funniest London productions of the modern era. The second, in 1989, was held to be a stylish but sterile affirmation that farce had had its day. And now Richard Eyre’s elegant production makes a bold attempt to rehabilitate the form.
 
Set in turn-of-the-century gay Paris, Feydeau loads the action with every conceivable kind of gag, broad and bawdy. Much is made of national stereotypes, the sexual proclivities of the married classes and, most crucially, a case of far-fetched mistaken identity that induces a blizzard of double-takes.
 
Set alternately in the sober drawing room of the Chandebise household and a florid hotel of ill repute, the comedy kicks off when Madame Chandebise (Lisa Dillon) takes her husband Victor’s impotence as evidence that he is having an affair. Her attempt to catch him red-handed sees Victor tempted to rendezvous with a bogus admirer in the notorious Hotel Coq d’Or, an establishment that insists that guests are married, though not necessarily to each other. It is also the workplace of concierge called Poche who is the spitting image of Victor. Both coarse and urbane roles are beautifully played by the plump Tom Hollander.
 
This is a plot that asks for and mostly gets the suspension of disbelief. And to that end much credit goes to Mortimer’s surely definitive translation for its clarity, and for ensuring that the first act’s pre-slapstick avalanche of exposition is soufflé light. Just as importantly, Eyre injects a rhythm into the dialogue that signals the speed of the door-slamming antics yet to come. And it is here that the production achieves – albeit fleetingly – the hilarious ecstasy without which there just would be no point to an evening of Feydeau.
 
It arrives as a moment of stillness, when Hollander’s pompous Victor is mistaken by the crop-wielding hotel manager for his feckless concierge Poche, at which point the indignant Victor, who is busy throttling the man he mistakenly believes is his wife’s lover, is consumed by panic at the mystifying punishment he knows he is about to receive. File the moment in your brain under funny, next to John Marquez's rampaging, jealous Spanish stereotype. It is just too good to worry that this is the kind of politically incorrect humour we are all supposed to have grown out of.
 
There are some false notes, though. Lloyd Hutchinson’s Ulster-accented hotel manager is oddly cast, and there are lessons to be drawn here as to what it would take for a modern farce to make the grade. One such would be not to have jokes with no central logic, such as a needlessly revolving bed. Also, do have a central character who is the cause of his own predicament.
 
Here, we never really care enough about Victor’s fate to feel the tension required of farce. Perhaps it is the fallible for whom we feel empathy, not the falsely accused such as Victor. But aside from that, this is as satisfyingly a revival of Feydeau as you could hope for.
 


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