(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/8.)
Is there anything funnier in the history of farce than the central act of this 1896 Georges Feydeau play, originally entitled Le Dindon? The comic highpoint comes when a retired army doctor and his deaf wife retire to their hotel bed blissfully unaware of the fact that two alarm bells have been placed under their mattress. As the bells go off, the room fills with people on the watch for adulterous hanky-panky; what I shall not quickly forget is the look of aghast horror on the face of Auriol Smith, playing the doctor's wife, as total strangers rummage under her bedclothes to stifle a sound she cannot hear.
Needless to say, all this is plotted by Feydeau with mathematical precision. But what is unusual about Sam Walters's production is that it treats the characters as real people rather than whirling automata. Feydeau himself carefully prepares the ground by showing a respectable Parisian bourgeois, Lucienne, declaring that she herself will take a lover if ever she finds her husband, Vatelin, being unfaithful; and, in this production, you feel a marriage is genuinely at stake. There is a rueful tenderness between Beth Cordingly's beguiling Lucienne and the fraught Stuart Fox as her lawyer-husband, guiltily tormented by the sudden arrival of an old, long-quenched flame. The attention to character pays off handsomely in the final act, when Cordingly calculatedly excites a prospective lover, played by David Antrobus with feverishly twitching lust, without offering him the least physical satisfaction.