The Old Vic has enjoyed a long association with John Mortimer's delightful version of this great 1907 Feydeau farce. It was here that the piece was premiered in a legendary production with Albert Finney and Geraldine McEwan in 1966. Some 20-odd years later at the same address, Richard Jones directed a notoriously wrong-headed revival. And now, a couple of decades on, A Flea in Her Ear makes a triumphant return to the venue in this blissfully funny and strongly cast production by Richard Eyre.
Monsieur Chandebise is having a little local difficulty with his conjugal obligations. His wife wrongly suspects infidelity and lays a trap by getting an old school friend to send him an anonymous letter suggesting an assignation at the Hotel Coq d'Or. Chandebise innocently shows the missive to the friend's husband, an insanely jealous Spaniard who recognises his wife's handwriting. This vengeful maniac and all the rest of the characters converge on the seedy establishment for the uproarious second act.
It's played here in a beautifully mounting delirium of split-second synchronicities, ridiculous revolving beds, and myriad misunderstandings, the hilarity heightened by the wit of Rob Howell's decadently rampant Art Nouveau set. The confusions are compounded by the fact that Poche, the hotel's drunken porter, turns out to be the spitting image of the upright Chandebise. In a dual role that involves lightning switches of costume and identity, the virtuosic Tom Hollander is wonderfully engaging, both as the primly respectable insurance executive who is aghast at being repeatedly chased and booted in the backside by the hotel's deranged ex-regimental proprietor and as the goggle-eyed goon who can't fathom why he's being fawned over by complete strangers.
John Marquez is outrageously amusing as the manic Hispanic, all hissing aspirates and poker-backed posing. But then the performances have just the right cartoon-like vividness more or less across the board, from Jonathan Cake's conceited lothario to Lloyd Hutchinson's splendid turn as the pervily irascible military proprietor. Delicious.
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