Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 17 December, 2010
One of the busiest members of Sam Walters’ company in this production is Sophie Acreman. She is not an actor, and is not onstage but sits behind a counter in one corner of the Orange Tree’s in-the-round space: never mind the fourth wall, you can’t have any of the other three here either. Ditto doors. This can be problematic for farce, which relies on folk zooming on and off in all directions but also on a palpable sense of them moving into and out of the action. So Acreman, in her corner, does sound effects, some of which consist of the barking of the small dog who gives this English version of an 1875 French farce (Le Procès Veauradieux) its title, but 90% of which are doors opening and closing. Actors mime, Acreman slams, bingo, fully operational farce.
Alfred Hennequin & Alfred Delacour’s finely constructed romp centres on an unsuccessful lawyer with a termagant of a mother-in-law. He, his colleague, his uncle and the husband of his first divorce client are all conducting adulterous affairs in the same building: two in the apartment we see, two upstairs but repeatedly bursting in here. To complicate matters, our protagonist’s mistress also turns out to be involved in the case he has used as a pretext to get away from home for the evening but about which he knows nothing. Then there’s that dog, which leaves half the company with hands bandaged as if from a gory Freemasonic ritual, but which makes its first actual entrance when already dead... bad-taste comedy is not a late-20th-century invention.
The farcical machinery is well engineered, as might be expected of writers who influenced Feydeau; however, the dialogue, as conveyed in Reggie Oliver’s translation, often sounds on the formal side. Some of this is for effect, as with the verbal formula that mother-in-law uses as a pretext for rifling through lawyer Fauvinard’s papers or indeed his own climactic oration; but sometimes it just stilts the action. Walters has also been over-generous with some characters’ behavioural tics, marring (for instance) a potentially nice little-Napoleon turn from Michael Kirk as a Commissioner of Police. But David Antrobus as Fauvinard is a solid farce-protagonist, believing seriously in the escalating chaos around him, and the production makes a more than viable seasonal alternative to family-targeted primary-colours jollity.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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