I’m the headless hunter of Honfleur, I’m the strangled Sister of Soissons, I’m the noseless Nun of Nantes”
Those who know me will attest to how firmly I tend to hold my preconceptions, but I do try to test them fairly regularly on the off-chance that a certain production might prove me wrong, if not about the whole genre then at least about that particular show. And despite its much-beloved status by the likes of Billington, Spencer et al, farce is one such genre of which I am no particular fan. I am one of the few who found One Man Two Guvnors painful in the extreme but I found myself tumbling easily for the charms of Noises Off, so whilst I might not ever call myself a fan of farce, I do know that it is impossible to lump them all together dismissively.
Which is a most long-winded way to say that I went to the Theatre Royal Bath to see Georges Feydeau and Maurice Désvallières’ A Little Hotel on the Side. Adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Lindsay Posner with an amazingly luxurious cast including the likes of Richard McCabe, Hannah Waddingham and Richard Wilson, it seems incredible that the run is just two weeks long but I would struggle to recommend dropping everything to try and see this. My only previous experience of Feydeau was with the Old Vic’s 2010 A Flea In Her Ear, which decidedly didn’t tickle my funnybone, and this felt far closer to that than to the delirious pleasures of Frayn’s backstage antics.
McCabe plays M Pinglet, a raunchy old rogue who has tired of his wife Angelique (Waddingham with some mighty high hair) and turned his gaze instead to Marcelle, his best friend’s wife played by Natalie Walter. He takes her to a local hotel to seduce her but as this is a farce, everyone else – husbands and wives included – is there too along with assorted other guests and so begins the manic sequence of attempted dalliances, mistaken identities and comic mishaps that make up the play. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find it funny at all but in all honesty, I found myself smiling more often than laughing, wryly tickled rather than highly amused.
The elements of farce are present and correct, but they just never seem to coalesce into something rip-roaringly hilarious. The smaller roles get the best of the laugh out loud moments – Luke Newberry’s Maxime trying to have it away with Debbie Chazen’s chambermaid, Richard Wilson’s slightly voyeuristic hotel manager Bastien with his drill and Tom Edden, recognisable from 1M2G, creates another inimitable comic character as a visitor with the strangest of quirks. But as so often happens when one doesn’t find something quite as funny as the rest of the audience, a sense of alienation creeps in and for me, much of the humour felt laboured, predictable and repetitive – I just don’t find trousers falling down that amusing.
And despite McCabe’s best efforts, and he is extremely funny at times, he can never really make Pinglet into that likeable a guy, thereby covering the slight sourness at the heart of Feydeau’s writing. A weird sense of just how objectionable the basic premise is never left me and though I am probably guilty of taking it too seriously, it really got in the way of surrendering to total hilarity. Michael Taylor’s set looks very accomplished on its revolve and the quality of the cast and direction ensured it never felt like a wasted trip, but this was a production to confirm my suspicions about farces rather than challenge my opinion.