Farce is a very particular taste and whilst there are doubtless legions of
folk who will flock to everything Messrs Cooney et al produce, many others
shy clear of the predictability that's inherent in the genre. Sam Walters,
artistic director of the Orange Tree, emphasises that, at its best, farce can
"deal with serious issues seriously and yet produce tears of mirth".
Fair enough and, whilst it's undoubtedly true that superb comic timing and a watertight ensemble are prerequisites for successful farce, unfortunately this is not a production to persuade those as yet unconvinced of its merits. That said, Have You Anything to Declare does possess its amusing moments and steams along at a good pace.
Penned by the 19-century French writers Maurice Hennequin and
Pierre Veber - here translated courtesy of Robert Cogo-Fawcett and Braham
Murray - and set at the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows
the fortunes of one Vicomte Robert de Trevelin whose wedding night is spoiled
by the intrusion of a customs official. His status as a true husband in
doubt, de Trevelin embarks on a desperate quest to prove his virility whilst around
him chaos erupts and the usual staples of mistaken identity and misconstrued
virtue come into force.
Tim Meacock's colourful set is seen at its best in the boudoir of Zeze, a
high class prostitute (played by Jane Arden) whose electric purple chaise longue vividly conjures the hedonism of her decadent lifestyle. The intimacy of this auditorium is ideally suited to farcically intricate machinations and
certainly the production gains some impact from its setting.
Several Orange Tree regulars reappear in this production, some to much
stronger effect than others. Stuart Fox's Frontignac is a camel dealer
intent on uncovering evidence of his estranged wife's infidelity, and Fox is
excellent as the wily operator who, with business concerns ever present, proffers his card even when deprived of all his clothes! Anna Hewson is effective too in her dual roles of maid to both the snobbish Duponts and courtesan Zeze.
Have You Anything to Declare is more enjoyable than its similar Orange Tree predecessor Winner Takes All - thanks to a better script - but lacks the full stash of necessary panache to really carry it. Still, it's pleasant and undemanding enough entertainment.