Lindsay Posner and Cal McCrystal's richly enjoyable production of A Little Hotel on the Side has many things going for it: a superb comic performance from Richard McCabe as the lustful Monsieur Pinglet, a cast in which there is not a weak link and John Mortimer's classic translation, which revels in paradox, puns and suggestiveness. "Haven't got a mistress?" Pinglet asks at one point. "Are you neglecting all your matrimonial duties?"
The play, written in 1895, portrays the attempts of Pinglet, browbeaten beyond endurance by his wife, to bed the neglected wife of his neighbour and friend, Henri Paillardin, who confesses he's not really into all that ‘hanky-panky, frankly, Pinglet'.
An assignation is made at a hotel which, naturally, Paillardin himself has reasons for visiting that evening too. Further complications are provided by a widowed father and his four young daughters and a maid intent on teaching a young student that there are better ways to learn about love than by reading Descartes.
The first act beautifully sets up the farcical events of the second, where Michael Taylor's ingenious set design comes into its own, and all is satisfactorily resolved in the third act with its further twists and brilliant dénouement.
McCabe hits all the right notes: he gives us the sweaty desperation and self-delusion of the middle-aged seducer, the vengefulness of the put-down husband and he is magnificent in his righteous fury when he manages to turn the tables on his wife on the morning after.
Richard Wilson offers sterling support as the lugubrious hotel manager who has seen it all and knows just what his clients want: "a charming love-nest where you and Madame can snuggle down, no questions asked".
Tom Edden's hilarious turn as Mathieu, whose rain-induced stuttering turns him into a jerking, kicking danger to others, is a joy. Hannah Waddingham is suitably imperious as Mme. Pinglet, ‘The Hornet', and Robert Portal is suavity incarnate as Paillardin.
The play is a perfect machine for generating laughter and the pace is never left to flag. If the first and third acts are funnier than the second, that may be because the wit of Mortimer's text and the compelling nature of the characters and their desires are more interesting to modern audiences than the mechanics of who's in what room behind what door.
Posner and McCrystal have understood that none of these characters are particularly likeable, but that the audience is ambivalent about how much it wants any of them disgraced or even found out. All of them, even Pinglet, have their reasons.
Along the way of, course, we get a clear look at the hypocrisy and vanity of the middle-class male and the trials of married life and a glimpse of a society in which there is one law for the rich and one for the poor and where the authorities are both incompetent and corruptible. All that, though, is secondary to the laughter, which this highly entertaining production provides aplenty.
- John Campbell