After a shaky 2010 (well, I
thought it was shaky; people I know in real life thought it was shaky; the press seem to have thought it was all killer, no filler but what do they know?) The Old Vic's last show of the year is Feydeau's farce A Flea In Her Ear
, in a John Mortimer translation first seen at this same theatre back when it housed the National. Tom Hollander is the star turn in the dual¹ role of respectable, impotent husband Chandebise and Poche, the drunken porter at a seedy hotel. Under the broad comedy is a very cynical view of marriage as all the couples here, from the head of an insurance company to his servants, share an outlook on fidelity: Everyone, male and female, believes they have a right if not a duty to cheat, but the idea that their spouse should also do so is abhorrent.
Like all good farces this goes at a frenetic pace but Richard Eyre's production does so from the first line, a decision I couldn't get behind for two reasons: Farce is chaos imposed on a world that pretends to order; even if we only see that order for a couple of minutes at the start before things fall apart, we still need to see it. We need to know what the setup is before it disintegrates which brings me to my second concern, of clarity: Light-speed delivery from the second the curtain goes up isn't easy to follow and Fiona Glascott in particular is incomprehensible in the opening scene. Although she gets better later she still has moments when her lines are completely garbled. The Old Vic audience tends to be generous and the laughs did come but they took a long time to start. Hollander, at least, is good in his dual roles - I strongly suspect the play was cast around him with taller actors to make his lack of height stand out even more, marking him out as the hapless figure being beset by confusion at every turn. Also as good as usual is Lisa Dillon, taking leading lady duties at this theatre for the second production in a row
(and she'll be straight off to the Almeida for another lead when this ends next spring.)
The central of the three acts is by far the strongest, set in the dodgy hotel and featuring non-stop movement on a set (by Rob Howell) that's so brilliantly overblown it's a character in its own right, so after the interval the third act (with its unfunny running joke of several characters speaking the same lines in unison) doesn't quite live up to it. It's a bit of an odd one really - most of the cast are spot-on and the timing's immaculate but although I had a smile on my face throughout, I only laughed out loud about half a dozen times. The audience as a whole did, once they'd warmed up, laugh more than that but it was still a bit muted for action this frenetic. I was surprised that Hollander's excellent quick-changes, which I found one of the more memorable parts of the show, seemed to get no reaction whatsoever.A Flea In Her Ear
by Georges Feydeau in a translation by John Mortimer is booking until the 5th of March at the Old Vic.
¹I originally mis-typed that as "duel." There is a duel, actually. Well, sort of.