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Once Bitten

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Every bit as funny as A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic, you can see exactly where Feydeau got his ideas from in this wonderful re-discovery of an 1875 French farce by Alfred Hennequin (with Alfred Delacour), father of one of Feydeau’s subsequent collaborators.

As if in Feydeau, the bourgeois cast list of lawyers, plaintiffs and adulterers remove to a Parisian hot-spot on the Rue Saint-Lazare before unravelling the consequences next morning back in the lead lawyer’s study. And, also as in Feydeau, there’s someone with a speech impediment – in this case a lawyer who has to pretend (don’t ask) that he has a paralysed tongue.

In a fantastically complicated plot, three characters are bitten savagely on the wrist by a snappy offstage dog who features – dead as a dodo – in the last act as a woolly decoy. The dog belongs to Beth Cordingly’s soignée mistress, squashed in her muff in a chance encounter on the bus; when her husband looms inconveniently from England, she complains wistfully that “he always comes a little too early.”

Reggie Oliver’s translation and Sam Walters’ spot-on direction yield wonderful doggie moments, not least the woof-woofs provided in full view by stage manager Sophie Acreman while also banging doors on sound effects in this completely open plan, intimate fringe arena.

The two adulterous lawyers, covering for each other in letters and false alibis, are splendidly done by David Antrobus and Mark Frost, the first hounded by Briony McRoberts’ superbly imperious mother-in-law, European cousin to Lady Bracknell, as well as the wife (Rebecca Egan) of his adulterous client De Bagnolles (Damien Matthews).

So it goes on, spiralling deliciously out of control, with Richard Durden’s narcoleptic old uncle falling asleep the minute he sits down and Amy Neilson Smith’s hilariously confused housemaid too cowed by bizarre goings-on to announce any visitor with anything resembling confidence.

“I am not here,” someone declares, cringing behind a chair that he’s holding; “There is no escape,” replies the Napoleonic commissioner of police (Michael Kirk), “my officers are outside, and you have no trousers.”

There’s no let-up in a farce every bit as good as classic Feydeau, with an underlying suspicion of real malpractice in a jewel theft overrun by the dubious claim that “infidelity makes the heart grow fonder”; it certainly tests these characters’ improvisational skills and physical stamina. Lovely stuff.


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