The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 14 December, 2010
The Hôtel Coq d’Or possesses the two elements crucial to classic farce: plenty of doors and almost as many... ahem. It may, in Rob Howell’s design, be so bedecked with gilt swirls that it looks like an attack of the Art Nouveau collywobbles, but the events on its premises in the second act of Feydeau’s 1907 play (originally La puce à l’oreille) run like a beautiful Heath Robinson machine, at once unwieldy and elegant. Both the play and Richard Eyre’s production are beautifully constructed, yet this outing somehow fails to strike the note of mischievous delight that is what keeps the genre so perennially popular.
No single ingredient seems deficient. In Tom Hollander, Eyre has a skilled protagonist... or rather, pair of protagonists, since the plot depends on the astounding resemblance between insurance broker Monsieur Chandebise and Poche, an alcoholic porter at the aforementioned hotel, which is notorious as a venue for adulterous trysts and at which all the characters arrive in various permutations and for an assortment of motives. Hollander heads a phalanx of acting talent including Lisa Dillon as his naïve wife, Lloyd Hutchinson as the former sergeant major who runs the hotel, Jonathan Cake as the libidinous friend drawn by mistake into the bed-hopping but a gleeful participant, and Oliver Cotton as the doctor who tries to sedate Poche in the third act when it seems that “Chandebise” has lost his mind. It contains a brace of comic speech impediments: nephew Camille’s cleft palate is included in the script, jealous Carlos’s paella-thick Spanish accent is simply thrown in for good measure (the first time I have seen John Marquez parody his ethnic heritage so broadly). There is also a generous dose of le vice anglais, with a veritable tattoo being played out on numerous backsides.
The cast all follow the golden rule of taking the ridiculous goings-on with utmost seriousness: we need to feel that much is at stake for the farce to work. It is not that they stifle the comedy – as I say, the construction and execution are marvellous – but my machine analogy is telling. The production moves admirably, but in a mechanical way, never achieving the balletic grace that gives such shenanigans the spark of life.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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