“It’s only funny when something goes wrong,” quipped my companion just before we decided to abandon yesterday’s somewhat ill-fated second preview of A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic - a performance that ended up running 40 minutes behind schedule due to tech hitches and actor injury. Uncharitable words, perhaps, but not entirely inaccurate. First performed at the Old Vic in 1966, in a fondly-remembered production starring Albert Finney and Geraldine McEwan, Feydeau’s 1907 play is widely regarded as one of the finest farces ever written, and one of the dramatist's very best plays. Set in turn-of-the-century Paris, it’s the story of misadventures at the Hotel Coq d’or, at which a motley group of characters have assembled for a series of trysts. Suspecting that her husband Victor Emmanuel Chandebise’s loss of interest in sex is due to infidelity, Raymonde sets a trap for him at the Hotel, via a fake love letter penned by her friend Lucienne, who’s married to a gun-toting and insanely jealous Spaniard, Don Carlos. Raymonde, in turn, is lusted after by Victor Emmanuel’s friend and colleague Tournel. Meanwhile, Victor Emmanuel’s speech-impaired nephew Camille heads to the Hotel for an assignation with the Chandebises’s cook, Antoinette, pursued by the latter’s husband, the butler Etienne. Complicating matters further is the hotel’s alcoholic porter, Poche, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Victor Emmanuel.
Despite its classic status, Feydeau’s play didn’t look at its freshest last night - unless you happen to find characters with speech impediments and funny-foreigner gags intrinsically hilarious, that is. And Richard Eyre’s production - which avails itself of the John Mortimer translation of the play that scored such a big hit in 1966 - is still clearly in the process of finding its feet. Farce in which you can see the gears grinding (or failing to grind, in the case of a particularly troublesome revolving bed) can be painful for the audience, and so it occasionally proved last night, particularly in a would-be frenetic conclusion to Act 2 that looked stilted and uncomfortable, and finally persuaded us to desert our posts.
All this being said, the actors certainly worked their damnedest to get laughs out of the material. Most successful were Oliver Cotton as Victor Emmanuel’s doctor, Jonathan Cake as Tournel, a frenetic Freddie Fox as Camille, the stylish Fiona Glascott as Lucienne, the always-reliable Tim McMullan as Etienne and - in particular - John Marquez, unleashing a truly epic lisp and fine flamenco skills as Don Carlos, the most outrageously stereotyped Spaniard to grace the stage since, well, Tim McMullan’s turn in the 2006 National Theatre production of The Alchemist. As Raymonde, Lisa Dillon (fresh from her success in the Old Vic’s Design For Living) looks like she still needs some time to settle into the role, while poor Tom Hollander struggled valiantly on despite his injury in Act 1, getting some decent comic mileage out of his dual roles as Victor Emmanuel and Poche.
It’s a funny thing about the Old Vic under Spacey: the productions are invariably slick and classy, well-cast and well-acted, and the theatre seems to have built up a tremendous amount of audience good-will over the years. And yet I never really feel much of a sense of urgency or necessity about the venue's programming, and seldom emerge really fired-up or excited about what I’ve seen there. A Flea In Her Ear has some promising elements and once the production finds its feet it will no doubt make for a mildly diverting evening’s entertainment. But - last night, at least - a comfy sofa and the Fawlty Towers boxed set seemed a much more attractive proposition.
The production opens on 14 December and is booking until 5 March.