A very strong Autumn season at Richmond’s lovely Orange Tree Theatre concludes, as per tradition, with a comedy for Christmas, in this case a production of Alfred Hennequin and Alfred Delacour’s 1875 farce Le procés Veauradieux, in a new adaptation by Reggie Oliver that’s been christened Once Bitten. Described by Oliver as “a complete, indeed paradigmatic, example of the classic French farce,” and acknowledged as a play that influenced Feydeau, the plot revolves around a lawyer, Fauvinard, who’s involvement in a divorce case is complicated by his mistress, a meddling mother-in-law, a lawyer friend, Tardivaut, and his mistress, an excitable uncle with narcolepsy, a jewel theft, and a rather troublesome dog.
Following so closely on the heels of my less-than-satisfying encounter with Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic, Once Bitten didn't seem like a particularly appealing prospect. But, happily, Sam Walters’s confident production proves to be a considerably more engaging experience. Hennequin and Delacour’s plot has more interest and bite (pardon the pun), and Oliver’s translation is nimble and witty, encompassing bare-faced innuendo (“She’s got the doctor up there giving her a thorough going over”) and big comic set-pieces (a brilliantly staged attack by dead dog), while also digging out elements that would excite a Freudian, from mother fixations to suspected incest and a narrowly averted uncle/nephew rape.
And, although this was only the fourth performance, the cast are completely on top of their game, and reassuringly at ease with the material. Orange Tree regulars David Antrobus (as Fauvinard) and Mark Frost (as Tardivaut) give memorable performances, and there's nice work from Amy Neilson Smith as a timorous, befuddled maid, and Beth Cordingly as Fauvinard’s canny mistress. Briony McRoberts brings a marvellous gleaming-eyed gusto to her fearsome mother-in-law who's dedicated to catching Fauvinard out (“I’ve got my eye on you, and it’s wide open!”) and Richard Durden is delightful as the uncle whose randiness is constantly thwarted by his tendency to fall asleep whenever he sits down (“I’m up all night!”). Door slams and doggy noises are provided by Sophie Acreman, while Sam Dowson’s set evokes bourgeois study and tart’s parlour with customary economy. Nothing life-changing here, then, but at least Once Bitten does - very skillfully - exactly what it says it will do on the tin. A fun evening.
The production is booking until 5th February.