All producing theatres will eventually come up with a straight out dud. The Ustinov, probably more than most, deserve the benefit of the doubt after their constant high output. But it makes it even more baffling how artistic director Laurence Boswell's normally good taste seems to have abandoned him here. In both play and production it slips embarrassingly short of the standards this theatre has set for itself.
Set in the 1850s, Eugene Marin Labiche's Monsieur Popular has song and dance interludes and a plot as creaky as an old fashioned rep set. Celimare (Raymond Coulthard) is about to marry his much younger fiancée Emma (Charlotte Wakefield in a rather thankless role) but can't rid himself of the two blithely ignorant men he has cuckolded. It's a play that doesn't stray much beyond the gender politics of its era; the relationships and friendships between the men matter more than those with their wives, the women only exist as two dimensional matriarchs or moody ingénues, and the lines about going home to hit your wife are supposed to raise smiles rather than protests.
As direct inspiration to Georges Feydeau, the godfather of farce, perhaps there is good reason to study some of Labiche's work but history lesson alone is not a reason to revive it. If one of the golden rules of farce is that the situations become funnier when the cast play them absolutely straight then the exact opposite happens here. As the cast mug frantically, the laughs become more strained from an audience looking to have a good time.
Though there have been good actors cast, Jeremy Sams' production does them no favours. Coulthard plays fading matinee idol in much the same way Coward would have in the early fifties, full of easy twinkling charm but with a distancing layer of camp that makes the relationships with his past mistresses and current young squeeze unbelievable and completely devoid of sex. Gregory Gudgeon and Howard Ward are better as the two unwitting cuckolds, the former morose and grey, still in mourning for his late wife and the latter ebullient in his rosy cheeked loquaciousness.
Stephen Matthews catches the acting style best as Celimare's manservant, but there is just not enough here to recommend it, although there is an admittedly pretty set from Polly Sullivan which resembles the French Impressionist movement.
In Sams' other productions his musical compositions have been a highlight, but here they are at best functionary and generally a degree or two below that. Having a combination of singers and non-singers doesn't help its case and as our protagonist shouts "no more songs!" late in act one we can't help but agree. It's a stumbling misstep from this south west gem but it's not terminal. Let's hope for normal service when they revive Feydeau's The One That Got Away later in the season.
Monsieur Popular runs in the Ustinov Studio, Bath, until 7 November.