This rarely seen early Feydeau farce – Le systeme Ribadier – was first adapted by Nicki Frei and directed by Peter Hall six years ago at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, but somehow disappeared off the radar. It returns in a new production under the auspices of the English Touring Theatre, going on from the Rose this week to Cambridge, Malvern, Guildford, York, Salford, Liverpool and Oxford.
It’s not riotously funny and certainly not vintage Feydeau, but Hall’s staging – with input from associate director James Robert Carson – is fairly lively and very well acted. In a first floor Paris apartment – cream and gilded with chaises longue and fresh flowers in Christopher Woods’ design – Angele’s second husband, Ribadier, berates her for following him to a government transport sub-committee meeting on railways.
She thinks he’s having an affair (he is, of course) and wants no more infidelities similar to those perpetrated by her first husband, Robineau (nearly four hundred in eight years in the French), whose large portrait by Manet dominates the room. Meanwhile, her former nearly-lover Thommereux – one sultry afternoon, he fought his desires, downed tools and withdrew, poor chap – has returned from the Orient, eager to win Angele now that’s she’s free. Except, of course, she isn’t.
Thommereux (Tony Gardner) is welcomed in to the house by Ribadier (Charles Edwards) himself, impervious to the fact that his old friend is a) hoping to seduce his wife and b) furious that Angele (Sara Stewart) has only married another man whose name begins with “R” so that she doesn’t have to change the linen or the silverware.
Ribadier slips off to see the wine merchant’s wife after operating his “system” – hypnosis – and night-time complications ensue. When Teddy Kempner’s rotund, blustery wine-merchant turns up – we’re now in “The Vintner’s Tale” – he offers the man who cuckolded him a cask of cut-price cognac on condition that the adultery remains a secret.
Everyone seems to agree that all husbands are liars and cheats and all women open to offers. But a renewed marital snog sends Thommereux back to Saigon and scorpions. Gardner plays the frustrated cad with a fine frenzy rolling, smart and plausible, with a snappy Gallic control, daring the audience to disallow his idea that he might make love to Angele while she’s unconscious, a naughty but nasty side of Feydeau.
He’s well tuned to Edwards’ humorously pompous politico and Stewart’s graceful, limpid, mostly virtuous hostess. Jason Thorpe and Nelly Harker chip in as the servants whose guilt-free sex seems a lot less fun than the deceitful rutting (achieved and otherwise) of their employers.