Georges Feydeau has been considered one of the masters of French farce for many years now and his work has been praised for its precision in both producing laughter at carefully designed moments and in its complex stage directions that appear to pre-empt the development of screenwriting. Such a precise approach, having seen the show, appears to have been necessary to the success of it. The amount of doors slamming and other sounds make for surprisingly musical entertainment, with the various actions of the muddled characters on stage mingling elaborately with their speech. Happily, the cast pull this off very well indeed. It is by no means an easy task as many times throughout the show the slams and bangs come between lines and have to be synchronised and orchestrated, which is a very difficult trick to master. It is very much akin to watching an orchestra at work, and working well, too.
There were a number of positives about the show that revolved around the amazing energy with which the cast bring the play to life. They energetically rush around the stage in their various states of confusion and horror with each path crossing each other regularly and not once did the ball drop, not once did the objectives of each character seem confused. This is a great success for a show as complex as this. There were moments of stylised physical comedy that worked very well with the overall whole. I liked the chaos and these moments of order amidst the whirling hurricane were a welcome change and synergy and, above all, were fun.
At the performance I attended of A Flea in Her Ear the indisposition of Tom Hollander led to the roles of Victor Emmanuel Chandebise and Poche being played by Greg Baldock. The effect that this had on the show is hard to gauge as he by no means felt out of his depth. I thought that his performance was one of the strongest in the whole cast and his efforts with the numerous costume changes and difficult character changes as well should not go unmentioned as they were nothing short of heroic. He led from the front and the cast followed willingly, each bringing a different chaos of their own to add to the cumulative shambles.
Lisa Dillon played his wife with the panic and propriety one would expect in a French farce and did so with good effect, keeping a handle on the situation even when it became more and more absurd. Jonathan Cake gave a good account of himself as a ladies’ man lusting after his best friend’s wife and Fiona Glascott as Lucienne Homenides de Histangua was a fitting match for both Lisa Dillon and John Marquez who played her borderline psychotically crazy husband. His gallivanting around the stage, loaded revolver in hand, was hilarious as all the characters crossed paths at the Hotel Coq d’Or. It was, to my mind, the funniest part of the show when they were all running from room to room in varying combinations as more and more chaos erupted from the general melee that had already arisen, the respectable doctor coming down the stairs with his trousers round his ankles and handcuffs on one wrist and the unintelligible Prussian were wonderful touches to the already brimming pot of confusion.
It is this part of the play that proves the ability of the cast as they kept themselves in line and adhered to the complex stage directions and managed to achieve the end result of an ordered chaos just as Feydeau would have intended it.
Freddie Fox’s struggle with Camille’s inability to speak properly must have been very challenging indeed and he deserves a mention for pulling it off very well. Sounding like a child with a mouth full of cotton wool we were able to grasp the gist of what he was saying even if the individual words escaped us entirely, which allowed us to understand both the frustrations of him and whomever he was talking to, or at least trying to. A good piece of work.
Despite all these good points, however, I am struggling to give the show a better review. Although there was chaos and more energy than I’ve seen on stage for a long time there was also something missing. The execution of the show in general was a fine art that is a credit both to the cast and to Richard Eyre as director but the whole show felt almost superficial. I know that by saying that I am pointing out one of the fundamental points of farce but even for that I felt that there was something extra that was missing. The cast were great, the set was amazing, particularly the Hotel Coq d’Or with its staircase and elaborate door systems and revolving bed, the costumes were strong and I found myself laughing pretty consistently throughout and yet I left the theatre thinking that there was something more that could have been done. It was as if the show was hollow somehow. There was most definately characterisation but there didn't appear to be any character underneath. It felt as if they had said 'It would be funny if this character was played in this way here' but failed to unite that to the rest of their role or the rest of the cast in general. This is why it felt as if something wasn't there; the characters weren't.
The performance itself was different to a regular performance; it was a matinee and Tom Hollander and Tim McMullan were indisposed but neither of these factors should have made a difference to the show and I couldn't notice that they had done in any way. Despite these shortfalls I enjoyed it and would recommend it for someone in the mood for watching peoples’ lives fall apart in an undeniably hilarious way before it all comes together again at the end.
A capable cast making a good job of what is a very funny play indeed. Well worth a gander.
Written by Georges Feydeau; Directed by Richard Eyre; at the Old Vic Theatre; starring Tom Hollander, Greg Baldock, Lisa Dillon, Freddie Fox, Jonathan Cake, Fiona Glascott, Oliver Cotton; Runs from 04 December 2010 - 05 March 2011.
John Ord (08/01/2011)