Happy Yet?, Gate Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

The dance-step arrested in mid-flight, the hollow offstage voices, the arch manipulation of invisible props, and even our old friend the silent scream - all the clichés of the former avant-garde are on view in this mini-museum constructed from four late Feydeau plays, "devised and reworked" by Ed Woodall and Linda McLean.

The evening also serves to exhibit the types and situations that would convulse the French of a century ago - and, for all I know, may delight them still. Here are dizzy wives, their tiny brains even more inadequate than usual during the madness of pregnancy; servants of infuriating insolence and stupidity (one, told to get the salts when her mistress faints, brings the salt shaker); husbands rendered speechless or bombastic at a suggestion they might have been cuckolded. But as to what the purpose of uniting these two genres may be, I am as mystified as that other Feydeau stalwart, the perplexed provincial.

The short plays are staged without any demarcation on a white set with four slatted blinds, each no wider than a single actor. A white mattress is the only furniture, and actors in black modern dress amble through the scene, adjusting the blinds or forming an invisible chorus; when one harried husband stamps on a wasp, five of them stamp along and clap their hands over their heads.

The most famous of these one-acters, On Purge Bébé, announces its potty humour in its title; another also involves a chamber pot, which a heavily pregnant wife insists her husband wear on his head to make her laugh. The theme of the two other comedies is described in the title of one, which translates as Don't Walk Around Naked! It concerns a lady who, despite the presence of servants and her politician husband's visitor, insists on remaining in her underwear on a hot day.

In each play, the joke is on the husband, victim of a wife whose obsession with her whims will not give way to reason, modesty, or fellow feeling. While Feydeau's farces depict adultery as chaotic, these plays portray marriage as insane, a quality that probably made them seem attractively relevant to the adapters. Their deepening pessimism is often credited to Feydeau's own failed marriage, but, just as in the earlier plays, there is no feeling deeper than the husband's fury at not being obeyed.

Perhaps cause and effect are the other way round: Feydeau's marriage failed because his feel- ings ran no deeper than outrage at having his edicts ignored? In any case, the plays remain in a limbo between domestic fluff and truly black comedy.

As a visitor who is pressed to down a laxative in order to give "baby" (a fractious tot) a good example, Duncan Wisbey is quite funny as a 1950s sort of boffin whose dignity is prodded, then assaulted, and finally pummeled out of existence.

To 24 April (020-7229 0706)

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