There’s nothing inherently funny about erectile dysfunction. Except, of course, in French farce, and Feydeau’s La puce a l’oreille (1907), is the ultimate diagnostic spin-off: a frustrated wife sets a honey-trap in a knocking-shop (Le Coq d’Or, as it happens) and all hell breaks loose.
This is the third time I’ve seen the play in this 1966 translation by John Mortimer on this Old Vic stage, and it’s an undiminished pleasure in Richard Eyre’s production, though not as yet riotously funny; farce is less often a guffaw glut than an anxiety-inducing series of mathematical equations leading towards catastrophe and last-minute resolution.
The insurance manager Chandebise is despatched by his own sex-starved wife on an illicit assignment and becomes embroiled in a hotel door-slamming session with a lookalike drunken hall porter, Poche, his own wife on a mission with his own friend, Tournel, and his wife’s best friend, Lucienne, and her foot-stompingly irate Spanish husband.
The National’s original production by Comédie Francaise maestro Jacques Charon was an early highpoint of the Olivier regime, with Albert Finney (in the lead), Geraldine McEwan and Edward Hardwicke particularly brilliant, and Richard Jones’ 1989 outrageous Expressionist hallucination (with Jim Broadbent) an extreme stylistic challenge to that memory.
Eyre steers an inventive middle course, with a Rob Howell design that is functional, vaguely modernist, but decked out with art deco golden tendrils in the hotel, and a winning performance by Tom Hollander as Chandebise and Poche, chasing his own tail, and finding himself asleep in his own bed, that combines the blinkered stuffiness of the first character with the bovine idiocy of the second, making the amalgam brilliantly plausible.
This is the plays where the line, “If you’ve forgotten your visiting cards, you can always give them the roof of your palate,” is curiously hilarious and foreigners with odd accents are fair game. There’s a sex-mad Prussian, an incomprehensible Spaniard, a lusty nephew with a speech defect, and a hotel manager with a self-esteem problem.
It’s all wonderfully non-PC. The hee-hawing nephew is played with almost excessive confidence by Freddie Fox, and there are high-tension contributions from Lisa Dillon as the dissatisfied wife, Jonathan Cake as the lubricious best friend, Oliver Cotton as a fussing doctor and John Marquez as the importunate, ridiculous Spaniard.
The show will bed down (im)properly with more performances. Not all the actors are as relaxed and precise in their roles as Fiona Glascott as Mme Chandebise’s magnificently coiffed Lucienne, Tim McMullan’s hearty valet, or Lloyd Hutchinson’s hotel proprietor. Hollander leads them all a merry dance, and effortlessly enters that dream-like state where you can legitimately believe you are someone else while knowing you’re not.