Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 21 January, 2000

Feydeau's La main passe! rendered into English by Reggie Oliver as Winner Takes All is that rarity among farces: a story in which adultery (a) is allowed to take place without being thwarted, (b) is then uncovered by the cuckolded parties, and (c) is neither bluffed away nor casually brushed aside, but allowed to have major consequences: the final scene, set a year after the preceding action, shows that the unfaithful Mme Francine Chanal has indeed gone on to marry her lover Massenay. If this all sounds unduly mordant, even sombre, for a farce, be assured that at least half a dozen pairs of trousers are also lost along the way.

Orange Tree artistic director Sam Walters has made an astute choice of play for the theatre's reopening after several months in fiscally enforced darkness: mainstream enough to be familiar and comfortable, unconventional enough to prevent outright complacency. It involves not only the aforementioned adultery, but also the unrequited longing for Mme Chanal of Coustouillou, whose lovesickness renders him clumsy and inarticulate; the drunkenness of Hubertin, which leads him to roar into Massenay and Francine's love nest mistaking it for his own flat; the nerd Belgence's similarly vain yearning for Mme Massenay, distrait at her husband's apparent disappearance; an over-officious policeman and, for good measure, a bricklayer who barks compulsively (not like a dog, he hastens to point out, but like a seal). Oliver preserves the spirit of Feydeau's original by throwing in several passing puns of his own, such as "The Hotel Terminus... I've heard it's the last word", or "He had a sister with a squint... gave me the eye once".

Of the players, Stephen Finegold engineers some skilful pratfalls on the smallish Orange Tree stage as Coustouillou, Peter Forbes rumbles around nicely as the sozzled Hubertin, and Paula Stockbridge's Francine cracks a cheeky gag at our expense, making a disparaging remark about "those irritating people who sit behind one in the theatre" whilst setting herself down mere inches in front of one bank of the theatre's intimate in-the-round seating. If Jason Baughan's bricklayer steals his scenes simply by "arp"-ing and growling his way through them, pretty much the whole play is stolen by the stage manager who, seated visibly in one corner of the house, supplies sound effects as the actors mime the opening and closing of doors and windows. Although the stratagems of David Antrobus's Chanal to extricate himself from his broken marriage almost constitute a frothier pre-echo of Pirandello's The Rules Of The Game, this is straightforward fun, staged and performed with a discreet flourish.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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