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Review Round-up: Old Vic Flea Divides Opinion

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Richard Eyre’s revival of French farce A Flea in Her Ear opened at the Old Vic this week (14 December 2011, previews from 4 December), marking the director's first production at the venue since 1974.

In Georges Feydeau’s classic comedy of errors, Raymonde (played by Lisa Dillon) suspects her husband Victor (Rev star Tom Hollander) of infidelity and enlists the help of her friend Lucienne (Fiona Glascott) to set a trap for him. Their plan misfires when the anonymous letter they send him suggesting a rendezvous leads to a sequence of mistaken identities and bruised egos.

John Mortimer’s version of the 1907 classic has previously been performed on the Old Vic stage in 1989 (starring Jim Broadbent) and in 1966 (starring Albert Finney, under the auspices of the then-resident National Theatre). Has it made a welcome return?

Michael Coveney

"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 ... Eyre steers an inventive middle course, with a... winning performance by Tom Hollander as Chandebise ... 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."

Libby Purves
The Times

"It should be a winner: fine actors, meticulous direction by Richard Eyre, brave slapstick and a script that worried the old Lord Chamberlain. Yet, for much of the evening I had a despondent sense of being trapped in a museum of bygones, witnessing an object-lesson in the limitations of dated French farce … Hollander is a subtle and likeable actor with a wide range, and in the event it is he who provides the scraps of meat in this stale baguette. Not just by his brilliant transformations and physical comedy, but because his characters are made believable: Monsieur Chandebise, the husband, is pompous, respectable and out of his depth in the Coq d’Or’s riotous atmosphere of shouting, door-slamming, and randy chaps in sock-suspenders. Poche the porter is earthy, with the submissive but cocky mien of the underdog. Hollander does both brilliantly, often less than a minute apart. But given the gabbling, self-consciously ridiculous quality of the play, he’s the only one who gets much chance … unlike Coward, Ayckbourn or Frayn, Feydeau offers no credible psychology to drive the jokes onward. Perhaps improbable people only work if set in credible circumstances, and incredible events as long as you believe in the people. Otherwise a play is just a pattern: and a flat one at that."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"The material is just too self-consciously silly ... In farces characters always have bees in their bonnets ... There’s nice work from Freddie Fox as a clerk with a speech impediment, but he’s battling the es-sentially charmless nature of the role. John Marquez is funny as Lucienne’s melodramatic husband ... There’s plenty here that suggests similarities between Feydeau and Basil Fawlty’s demented world. There are numerous episodes of slapstick, many involving hotel proprietor Lloyd Hutchinson kicking Hollander’s bottom. Some of this is enjoyable, some a trifle embarrassing. It’s all executed skilfully. Farce is a feat of engineering, in which we’re forever expecting an epiphany that can’t actually happen: here the engineering has been deftly achieved, and John Mortimer’s translation still seems fresh after more than 40 years. But I’m not convinced Feydeau has anything of urgent interest to say."

Michael Billington

"Where does one begin in praising Feydeau? Perhaps with the thrift and beauty of his plotting ... Feydeau's masterstroke is to make the hotel's drunken porter, Poche, a dead ringer for the respectable Chandebise ... a chance to play dual roles... that Tom Hollander seizes with inventive avidity ... Hollander's skill, as the two lives intersect, lies in suggesting they become spiritually alike ... Not everything is perfect: Lisa Dillon and Fiona Glascott could both find more substance in the hypocritical Mme Chandebise and her school friend. But there is a brilliant performance from John Marquez as the inflammatory, heel-clicking Spaniard, and a very good one from Freddie Fox ... Jonathan Cake as a vain Casanova and Lloyd Hutchinson as a brusque hotelier have the security of outline essential to farce-acting. The result is a heartlessly funny evening of whirlwind insanity; and my new year wish is that we return to a genre that Eric Bentley once dubbed "the quintessence of theatre."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"There is only one infallible indicator of a good farce. There should be moments, and preferably many of them, when it becomes physically impossible to stop laughing. And just when you think you have got a grip on yourself, the eruptions should begin again. By this strict and foolproof test Richard Eyre’s revival of Feydeau’s A Flea in her Ear (1907), in a translation by the great John Mortimer, fails, and fails miserably … Most of the problem is caused by Richard Eyre’s ham-fisted production, in which everyone overacts and mugs so desperately that laughter dies in the throat … The great exception is Tom Hollander, who enjoyed such success in the TV series Rev, playing the double role of an eminently respectable and faithful husband who runs an insurance company, and Poche, a drunken porter in a Parisian hotel notorious for adulterous trysts. Hollander plays both with inventive panache and some sensational quick changes … Otherwise, even such usually reliable comic actors as Tim McMullan and Lloyd Hutchinson go down with the sinking ship while Lisa Dillon and Fiona Glascott are glamorous but desperately dull as the devious wives. This is the kind of deadly evening that will be best enjoyed by those who lack a sense of humour."


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