Suggesting that a French farce needs a stronger rooting in reality to succeed is a little like suggesting somebody put their hammer aside and start whacking away at a nail with a herring. It’s just not the right tool for the task.
But all comedy needs to come from some sense of truth — if not reality, then at least a shared sense of logic amongst the characters. If an audience gets a strong grasp of who a group of people are — what they value, and how they relate to one another — they can easily delight in the chaos of their world being turned upside down.
Simon Phillips’ new production of Georges Feydeau’s 1907 farce A Flea in Her Ear (adapted by Andrew Upton, but kept in a similar time period), wins its fair share of laughs, but stumbles early on.
Feydeau’s plotting is absolutely extraordinary. There’s narrative thread after narrative thread, weaving in and out as situations evolve, lies are compounded upon lies, and revelations are made.
The basic central plot involves Raymonde Chandebise (Harriet Dyer), who begins to doubt her husband, Victor Emmanuel’s (David Woods) fidelity when he stops performing sexually. So Raymonde and her friend Lucienne set an elaborate trap at a seedy establishment — the Snatch Time hotel — to catch him in the act.
What ensues is a series of mistaken identities, drunken pratfalls, running gags, double entendre, and a rather full-on offstage sex party.
Phillips and his actors shoot out of the gate with physical gags and mugging right from the start. Harry Greenwood, as Camille Chandebise, a young man with a prominent speech impediment, has the unenviable cast of kicking the action off and welcoming the audience to this ridiculous world with some broad physical comedy.
Some actors fare better than others, but the first act is misjudged and played relentlessly for laughs. The consequence is that it doesn’t feel particularly funny — nothing kills comedy like actors trying too hard to be funny.
Harriet Dyer and Justin Smith rise above this tone — they’re two actors with comedic instincts second to none. They can play a situation as broadly as possible, but always find the inherent truth behind it.
Sean O’Shea and Tim Walter find a more relaxed pace, and David Woods is brilliant, particularly in the second act, in dual roles. Unfortunately, the friendship between Dyer’s Raymonde and Helen Christinson’s Lucienne never takes hold and, given that they’re the driving force behind the action, that’s not an insignificant problem.
But Phillips is more concerned with the intricate choreography and plotting of the piece, ensuring every element falls perfectly in place and is perfectly calibrated. He does a spectacular job of this, particularly in the second act and third acts, which have actors constantly coming and going in new guises, ready to wreak havoc.
Upton’s adaptation is similarly masterful in the way it handles the complex narrative. It has the occasional gag that falls short, but there’s a great knowingness to his approach, particularly when the characters address the audience.
And this production looks gorgeous — Gabriella Tylesova’s rotating set is a jewel box of colour and beauty (there’s even a rotating bed), and her costumes are every bit as intricate and thoughtful as the plotting.
The best farce should escalate as it goes on and on, becoming more ridiculous, making its characters jump through more outrageous hoops.
This production wants to start with its stakes and comedic playing style at 10. It eventually crawls up to a 12 in the second act — and it’s glorious when it does — but it’s not quite the perfect comedy treat it might be.