Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic
Feydeau's influence on English sitcom was beautifully illustrated when happy chance brought us home from A Flea in Her Ear to an episode of Fawlty Towers on TV. It was the one where Basil skips in and out of bedrooms in the eponymous hotel, trying to catch out a young musician he suspects (rightly) of hiding a girl in his room. A middle aged psychiatrist and his wife, and a nubile blonde in a bright green T-shirt who occupy adjoining rooms become involved, as the rock star gets the better of Basil and Basil dodges an increasingly exasperated Sybil. Like the play we'd just seen it all depends on miscommunication and split-second timing, doors opening, people appearing then disappearing and the invention of impromptu alibis -such as Basil's 'testing' surfaces for damp, even when he's inside a wardrobe or peering through a window. As the psychiatrist remarks, 'Enough material for a whole case conference'.
Evasions and misunderstandings surrounding illicit sex are exactly what made Feydeau's farces so popular in Paris in the 1920s and which barred them from 'No Sex please, we're British' stages until 1968 and the lifting of the Lord Chamberlain's ban on risque drama.
In Paris, the elegant Raymonde Chandebise confides to her best friend Lucienne that her husband, an otherwise hidebound insurance agent, is being unfaithful. She suspects him of conducting liaisons at the infamous Coq D'or, a high-class brothel. Lucienne agrees to make a clandestine assignation by letter, so the truth can be uncovered.
Somehow, the whole household, including friends and servants, become involved in an increasingly tangled plot which plays out at the Coq D'Or. It doesn't help that the brothel bellboy is a dead ringer for Mr Chandebise, who goes along out of curiosity. Poche the bellboy happens to be a masochist and his employer an ex-military sadist who obliges by kicking him round the room whenever they meet. To add to the high jinks, Lucienne's husband is an insanely jealous Spaniard and another customer is a Prussian who thinks every woman he meets is a prostitute sent to attend to him.
Mayhem on this scale requires skilled direction and spit-second timing, here marvellously achieved by Richard Eyres and his team. It was a disappointment that Tom Hollander was unwell on the night we attended, but Greg Baldock was convincing in the demanding roles of Chandebise and Poche. As in Shakepeare's identical twins comedies, much of the humour not only depends on mistaken identity but in this case one character following almost on the heels of the other. Over-the-top playing by beautifully coordinated Freddie Fox made the most of the thankless role of a young man with a speech impediment and William Findley was funny as the fiery pistol-waving Spaniard, although comic foreigners and disability as comedy date the play to some extent.
The costumes were well-designed considering the number of quick changes and rapid movements required. The brothel entrance hall and stairway was a masterpiece of mock Art-Nouveau, all elongated trunks and tendrils, suggestive of a gilded swamp. The programme was excellent, including a history of the Belle Epoque era and a pocket biography of Feydeau and farce as well as an article on sorely-missed John Mortimer, whose translation of the play was presented in the National Theatre in 1966.
I wouldn't recommend seat L26 in the stalls at the Old Vic when you're sitting behind a man who looks like Father Ted with a fuzzier haircut. Some of the early speeches were lost on me, only partly because of the quick-fire delivery, which takes a little getting used to. My companion and I agreed that if we get another chance to see this very marvellous play we'll be very happy to go along a second time.