Brian Rix was once asked if he was dismayed that, after all these years of heroic trouser-dropping for England, in any word-association game the term "farce" would still trigger the response "French". Not that our knowledge of Gallic ooh-la-la is particularly deep. But the admirable Orange Tree has unearthed several rarities in this rich seam. Now, just as the Old Vic revive the Feydeau classic, A Flea in Her Ear, Sam Walters directs a highly entertaining production of Once Bitten, a spiritedly witty adaptation by Reggie Oliver of a pre-Feydeau farce from 1875 by Alfred Hennequin and Alfred Delacour.
The Orange Tree has a tradition of compounding the merriment by drolly highlighting how an in-the-round space is, in some ways, an incongruous set-up for a panic-propelled genre in which doors play such a starring role. Once again, there's a conspicuous sound-effects lady who supplies the door-noises for mimed frantic exits and entrances. This time she also has to provide the petulant yappings of a vicious poodle.
The creature is the pet of Cesarine (Beth Cordingly), the mistress of the main character, Fauvinard. Engagingly played by David Antrobus, he's a brief-less Parisian lawyer who's beset by a snooping gorgon of a mother-in-law (formidable Briony McRoberts), a half-gaga wastrel-toff uncle (delectable Richard Durden) and Tardivaut (handsome, amusing Mark Frost), a fellow lawyer and cohort in infidelity.
It's Fauvinard's misfortune that, when he finally lands a big divorce case, his client's adulterous husband turns out to be another lover of Cesarine who is herself evidently entangled in an elaborate jewellery robbery. This all emerges in the escalating mayhem of the riotous second act in the louche Rue St Lazare love-nest. Here, in one of the funniest gags, the two hapless lawyers are repeatedly forced to pose as doctors examining Cesarine (Tardivaut's line, "I'm a homeopath" is, in context, a hoot). And after the establishment is raided by a hilarious Napoleonic pipsqueak of a police commissioner (Michael Kirk), Fauvinard has to confront his mother-in-law clutching a dead mutt and in an advanced state of "oops, there go my pantaloons."
It's beautifully executed and demonstrates just how much ground Hennequin had prepared for Feydeau. A dotty delight.
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