Don’t you love farce? My fault I fear…

I am not sure whose fault it really is, but indeed we do not love farce as much as we might and should. In the same way that detective fiction is often disparaged in comparison with ‘high literature’, so we tend to regard farce and its authors as a lesser genre not to be spoken of in the same breath as mainstream drama. Yet the technical demands placed on creatives and actors if farce is truly to succeed at its multiple plate-spinning best are in many respects tougher than those demanded in ‘ordinary’ plays; and if we are talking of literary weight and influence then it is hard to see how absurdist and surrealist drama could have taken the anarchic forms they have without the 60 plays of the author in question here – Georges Feydeau.

Too often seen as a conventional product of Paris in the Belle Epoque, his plays are in fact technically innovative, daringly direct, even raunchy, in language, and unmatched in the way they ravel up increasingly convoluted plot complications that combine visual and verbal humour to ever more elaborate degrees. If presented correctly, the later sections should leave the ground intoxicatingly in a bubble of deliriously funny, self-contained, mad-cap implausibility that only bursts when the curtain finally falls. It is greatly to the credit of the Tabard’s new production, under Alex Sutton’s fluent direction, that it achieves this critical point of take-off.

Something should be said of the plot, though as ever in farce, the story is the merely the formula, and not the experiment; the opening gambit, not the fast and furious end-game.

Raymonde and Victor are typical members of the haute bourgeoisie, moneyed and leisured. Raymonde convinces herself that Victor loss of sexual interest must be down to his having an affair, and hatches a plan with her best friend Lucienne to remove the ‘flea in her ear’. This involves Lucienne writing a letter inviting him to a rendez-vous at the Frisky Puss hotel, which Raymonde intends to keep. Unfortunately through a series of mishaps more-or-less the whole cast come to think that they have an assignation to honour at this louche establishment, which sets the scene for a classic ‘bedroom farce’ climax with five doors continually in concealing or revealing a continuous revolve of characters. The action then returns for the final plot pirouettes to the Paris mansion in which we began.

One of the golden rules of farce is that the more the actors play their roles in deadly earnest the funnier things usually emerge. This is mostly what happens here, but Sacha Bush’s lively contemporary translation also offers scope for some tongue-in-cheek moments too. There are some delightful satirical musical episodes to punctuate the action that give a broad-brush ‘Allo, ‘Allo-style to the Parisian setting, and plenty of call-signs and musical triggers for characters rather in the manner of Blackadder. The set, by Mike Leopold, is simple but effective, contriving to pack in a lot of entrances in a small space and decorated with enough indicative period furniture to create an impression without over-cluttering the stage. There are plenty of special effects and tricksy lighting, but none that overstay their welcome.

The most salient point to make about the players is that they have to work very, very hard. There are six actors but many more minor parts as well that have to be shared out among them – maids, valets, and the staff and other guests at the Frisky Puss. Part of the charm and delight of this production is simply the ingenuity in which the cast manage to scamper from one role and costume to another without letting the pace drop, and how well they improvise when things – clearly – did not go according to plan. One particularly recalcitrant piece of scenery was as good in the end as a preconceived running gag.

As Raymonde, Haley Catherine started with fey charm, but found real steel and a resonant singing voice when she needed it. She also did a most amusing turn as the ditzy patronne of the dubious hotel. Dominic Brewer played Victor as more of an innocent abroad than as the self-righteous middle-class husband he usually appears to be, and that dovetailed well with his double-act as the hapless drunken bell-hop at the hotel for whom his character is supposedly a dead-ringer. Rachel Dawson, as Lucienne, was all a bored, languorous lady of leisure should be, before entering fully into the fray in the later stages especially when galvanised by the jealous pursuit of husband Clark James, portraying an absurdly over-the-top macho Spaniard, Don Carlos. Richard Watkins had the most to do perhaps, firstly as Victor’s nephew, Camille, whose speech impediment is one of the running themes of the dialogue, then as Victor’s dim-witted colleague, Tournel, as well as a valet and the manager of the hotel. There were points when I was not clear quite how he managed to get changed, around the stage and on again in time…

Farce, more than any other theatre genre, is a team-effort in which everyone is totally reliant on everyone else to catch the ball and run with it. All the same one performer did stand out in this production. Jamie Birkett deserves great praise for the sharp distinctions she drew in all her roles but above all for her portrayal of the doctor which was closest in spirit to what Feydeau had in mind. Her characterisation is a masterpiece of prissy hypocrisy and faux outrage, at just the level of satire of the absurdity of the petit bourgeois that the author envisaged. It was a brilliant physical realisation as well, with a martinet’s gait and a delightful, emblematic, detachable moustache that – quite rightly – evoked Magritte’s visual defiance of conventional reality.

Not everything worked perfectly by any means, but for the most part the improvisatory format and the quick wit of the cast ensured any wobbles did not diminish the huge enjoyment of the audience. There is no doubt it is a long evening, and the second half could experience a nip and tuck to general advantage, especially once the action leaves the precincts of the Frisky Puss, when the pace slackens and a few of the ruses begin to seem repetitive. That said, this cast have grasped the spirit of farce to the full, give huge pleasure, and deserve a very successful run.

Four stars

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…