I admit that I mostly enjoy farce when not laughing my head off. There is far too much anxiety about the plot and fascination with the pay-offs to allow any sense of relaxation. But because he's innately funny anyway, in a John Cleese meets Alan Bennett sort of bumbling way, James Fleet as Philip Wardrobe, a hapless MEP holed up in a Strasbourg hotel with ambitions to become President of the European Union, has his moments.
Fleet is a quick actor and, as the mayhem mounts, he never loses his rag, though his jaw drops quite often. So do his trousers. His lever into the top job is a shady deal – a case full of Euros, to be precise - with the Turkish government over their EU membership bid.
But the power-broking head of the German socialists, Frau Flugelhammerlein (Carol Macready) wants to see him married. Philip’s partner, Nicola Daws (Carla Mendonca), who happens to be a human rights activist with a big down on Turkey, is flying in for a “making a baby” weekend with Wardrobe.
Philip’s illegal immigrant personal PA Sasha (Sian Brooke) – the moral conscience of the play - manages to confuse Nicola with a predatory French journalist Beatrice Renard (Anna Francolini does indeed exude a foxy aroma), and a series of door-slamming manoeuvres results in a session of Wardrobe and cupboard love with disastrous consequences.
By this time, the stage is full of props and pitfalls such as a handy pink phallus, a jug of cold water in which Philip has been dipping his testes (to improve his sperm count), several jiffy bag bombs, a stray archbishop (Rodney Smith), loads of “F” words, and an undercover agent (Huw Higginson) who is bugging the drinks table.
David Grindley’s production, on a handsome hotel bedroom design by Jonathan Fensom that screams “I’m ready for the West End”, is pitched at so high a level, you can never care about the characters. The first rule in farce is that those involved must really feel the pinch. The second is that the events must be skilfully engineered otherwise the “one damned thing after another” syndrome starts feeding an audience’s capacity for sullen resentment; which is what happens here.
Philip’s sidekick and fixer is a gruff Yorskhire MEP – representing UKIP in the West Riding – whom RSC veteran Richard Moore presents as a grotesque no-nonsense specimen of Northern bigotry, chops a-quiver and eyes a-bulging like some mangy old blood hound. It is a brilliantly sustained but entirely unfunny performance that seems to sum up the whole enterprise.
- Michael Coveney