Old farce is still fun

Reporter: Paul Genty
Date published: 18 March 2009


GEORGES Feydeau’s name is invoked like some sort of religious icon whenever comedy actors gather to discuss who’s making a mess of a job they could have done better.

The Frenchman’s ability to get characters — you couldn’t call them people, exactly — clamber about on stage, declaring this or that and getting a response that usually sees them slamming out of the nearest door, is well known and admired.

But the respect is reserved mainly for Feydeau’s later early-century comedies, rather than the pre-1900s ones.

This early one is about Ribadier, a philandering husband (naturally), his suspicious wife Angele (having been trusting and betrayed by her last husband) and a randy friend, Thommereux, who didn’t make a play for the wife while she was married to his best friend, but doesn’t feel the same bar now he has returned from the Far East to claim her, second husband or not.

The second husband claims fidelity but has a mistress on the side and the skill to hypnotise his wife to deep sleep when he leaves the house to play away.

Unfortunately the girl friend’s suspicious husband, the local wine merchant, traces him home and confronts him, pausing only to sell him some cognac before leaving.

The key to Feydeau is all in the play’s construction: he wasn’t very good at characters and neither was he much good at dialogue.

But the way he built his stories into glorious, teetering edifices that begin to collapse in act two and fall apart thereafter, remains unsurpassed.

Here though, he was still learning.

The smartness of the plot is there — helped here by a shortened, witty translation by Nicki Frei — but it doesn’t quite tip over into the sort of farce that makes you breathless from laughing.

Director Sir Peter Hall’s tendency to treat everything like it is Chekhov doesn’t help, slowing things down at times to the point where we have stopped laughing and started realising the show is pretty ordinary.

But the performances themselves are energetic and fun: Charles Edwards is an outwardly respectable but inwardly slimy man of the house; Sara Stewart a stoic, much-put-upon wife and Tony Gardner hard-working as the friend, while Teddy Kempner is the blustering tradesman and Nelly Harker and Ryan Ellsworth the hanky panky-fuelled servants.