Winner Takes All at the Orange Tree Theatre

After six months of debt-induced darkness, Richmond's tiny Orange Tree has re-opened with a cheerfully energetic farce about marital infidelity, Winner Takes All. Translated by Reggie Oliver from Feydeau's La Main Passé, it's a fairly unsurprising example of the genre, which takes simple misunderstandings and mistaken identities as its main source of comedy.

The tale, set amidst bourgeois drawing rooms of 19th century Paris, involves two respectable couples, the Chanals and the Massenays. Dapper, supercilious Monsieur Chanal (David Antrobus) doesn't realise it, but his attractive wife Francine (Paula Stockbridge) is having a spot of extra-marital nookie with ex-school chum Massenay (Charlie Simpson).

However, this little secret comes to light when Chanal discovers a passionate phonograph recording the two lovers have unwittingly made of themselves. This gives the whereabouts of their love nest - situated, in a typical Feydeau touch in a seedy hotel - where they're discovered by a drunken friend Hubertin (Peter Forbes), then by the irate cuckold and the self-serving Commissioner Planteloup (Ian Angus Wilkie).

I'm not going to give too much away about the rest of the plot, except to say that the course of true love doesn't run smooth from here on, being complicated by the fact that Massenay still loves his decorous wife Sophie (Amanda Royle), and Francine has another ardent suitor in the shape of an eccentric politician.

Sam Walters' cast puts in some solid performances, with Stephen Finegold's Jacques Tati-esque comic turn as Monsieur Coustillou and Antrobus's posturing Chanal standing out in particular. Jason Baughan also brings the house down as a bricklayer whose stammering causes him to bark like a seal.

My chief disappointment with Winner Takes All is that it amounts to two hours of amusing but otherwise unsophisticated comedy. Feydeau it may be, but at times it feels more like a forerunner of a 70s sitcom, both in the predictability of its plot and the standard of humour.

Also, given the postage stamp-sized stage, Winner seems an over-ambitious choice. Fred Mellor's set design, minimalist though it is, is sometimes stretched to capacity, and some actors have to spend protracted periods waiting in the aisles unable to exit offstage.

It's nice to see the Orange Tree back in business again, and I'm sure this production will find an audience, but you can't help but feel there's better stuff to come from Walters and his talented cast.

Richard Forrest