I often consider myself to be uneasy with farce, but the truth is that my problems are largely with modern English attempts at it rather than with the form as a whole. When one returns to the master of the genre, Georges Feydeau, the combination of comic structure and a tartness of content proves immensely appetising in comparison.
Le mariage de Barillon (1895) may include administrative cock-ups affecting marriage to and divorce from the wrong people, and a long-lost husband returning to force a menage à trois upon the hapless Barillon, but there is a palpable current of authorial sympathy with the protagonist. Feydeau was not the greatest fan of marriage either in real life or in his plays, and even as we laugh at Barillon railing against its consequences for him we can hear the playwright's voice beneath insisting, "No, really...".
Graeme Garden's adaptation, Horse And Carriage, revels in every opportunity for inserting cornball Barry Cryeresque gags and cheerfully contrived double entendres, but this enriches the mix rather than diluting it, as he also maintains the strain of genuine discomfort. The absurdity and uneasiness alike of the situation are conveyed in Barillon's confused final-scene protestation, "As long as I am one of Virginie's stepfathers, nobody marries her but me!"
Deborah Norton's production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse goes all out for esprit de farce, which largely works in terms of characterisation, although Griff Rhys Jones as Barillon grows worryingly red in the face as complications pile up between the two intervals. The playing style is heightened and artificial, but without letting the actors suggest a superior, postmodern detachment from the material. It could have done without much of the slapstick business, however: if I had a franc for every time someone fell on to or over that chaise longue, I would be a made man. Tim Reed's design is handy for farce but not quite sturdy enough, as rattling away at one set of doors may inadvertently shake open the neighbouring pair.
Alison Steadman as Barillon's accidental, and accidentally bigamous, bride (the mother of his actual intended) is to all intents and purposes a louder, gaudier cousin of her character in Pride And Prejudice, a kind of Madame Bennète. Des McAleer, in the most appealing of the characterisations, skilfully works his native Irish lexicon of phrases of incredulity into the character of the provincial uncle Brigot, and Diana Morrison not only fulfils the big-eyed ingenue requirements as Virginie but contributes a jaunty musical score to the proceedings.
At two and three-quarter hours including two intervals, the evening feels drawn-out; the script could easily be nipped and tucked in addition to shearing off much of the cavorting in performance, including a pointless prelude. But the ambivalent spirit of Feydeau still makes itself felt: the pill may be sugared, but we can taste the bitterness beneath.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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