Have You Anything to Declare, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A bit of a farce
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The Independent Culture

Since straight fornication is no longer automatically considered scandalous, or adultery amusing, the French farce of the late-19th century looks like turning into an exhibit at a science museum. Have You Anything to Declare? survives better than most, however, by spreading its options: though sex is, of course, Topic A, Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber's comedy also satirises social climbing and art-marketing (the saucy Zézé signs her name to her lover's paintings and flogs them for high prices to buyers charmed to see such talent in a pretty woman).

But what really keeps this farce from mouldering in the archives is its astonishingly forthright discussion of sex, kept respectable by linking it to family values. Back from their honeymoon, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Trivelin visit her parents, the distinguished Judge Dupont and his wife. The Duponts are still glowing at having married their daughter to a toff, but what they hear makes them want to put the vicomte's lights out. It seems that, on the wedding night, the groom, too eager to wait until their train crossed the frontier, decided to "crop the flower of hymen on the sacred soil of la belle France". But at the wrong moment, a customs official burst in shouting the question of the title.

The poor vicomte is so traumatised that his wife returns as innocent as she departed, unable to satisfy her sister's clamorous curiosity, and puzzled at what her bedside reading calls the "dreadful, delicious mystery" of marriage. Outraged, the Duponts announce that if, in three days, their son-in-law hasn't done his duty, the marriage will be annulled.

Farces being what they are, this problem is complicated further by a malicious rival, a confused gendarme, and a wandering camel dealer, not to mention Zézé, a phoney painter but an honest-to-goodness whore whose clients include, among others, the vicomte and the judge.

Sam Walters' production deals ably with the Orange Tree's theatre-in-the-square and its lack of the sense of compression-to-bursting usually considered a necessity of farce. Indeed, the actors' knocking and keyhole-peeping at imaginary doors becomes part of the fun. The actors are all likeable, especially Damien Matthews' ardent, embarrassed vicomte and Auriol Smith's fierce Madame Dupont.

In Robert Cogo-Fawcett and Braham Murray's translation, though, the funny lines are in short supply – as is the priapic wildness needed to contrast with bourgeois propriety. When Robert McBain's grand judge visits the tart, he remains dignified even when deprived of his trousers and mistaken for a notorious criminal, the Vampire of Vincennes. (Note to director and translators: the mention of the vampire's crimes are a nasty laugh-killer, at least for female patrons.) Still, if not hilarious, this is quite jolly, especially when the indignant judge turns to his wife and says, "Let us retire and set them a good example."

To 2 Feb (020-8940 3633)

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