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Theatre review: A Little Hotel on the Side - The old jokes are the best, unlike lovers

Paramours scuttle, sets spin and coincidences pile up in a peppy revival of a vintage farce

Monsieur Pinglet wants hanky-panky. That goes with the terrain. Treated to a Bath Theatre Royal revival by director Lindsay Posner, A Little Hotel on the Side is, after all, a French farce, aka L’Hotel du libre échange, co-authored by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Désvallières.

So, complete with bushy whiskers and dangling watch fob, Richard McCabe’s Pinglet is your classic, 1890s bourgeois: superficially respectable but lusting after his neighbour’s wife. He pounces as soon as he sees his chance, and Madame Paillardin (Natalie Walter) – being miffed with her spouse – agrees to a shady hotel rendezvous. Thanks to a pile-up of absurd coincidences, half their social circle are checking in as well. Cue much scuttling, slamming of doors,  and the climactic runaround of a police raid.

Farce is, paradoxically, composed of shock and stock formulas. Even while the characters are stifling shrieks of horror, the frightful pickles out of which they’re scrambling are – for the today’s audiences, at least – vintage set-ups. Indeed, if you’ve seen the hotel in Feydeau’s better-known A Flea in Her Ear, you might wonder if you left that via a revolving door that has merely whirled you round and in again.

This doesn’t stop Posner’s production being entertaining. John Mortimer’s English adaptation is peppy. McCabe is on a roll, with a deadpan, rapid-fire style of delivery that’s simultaneously tinged with cod melodramatic flamboyance. Striking a wannabe cavalier pose, he hoists one stout leg, with a thud, on to the coffee table. His rotund Pinglet makes a droll double act, at home, with Hannah Waddingham. She towers over him as his wife, whom he’s forever badmouthing, under his breath, as a harridan.

One can’t help feeling, deep down, that most of Feydeau and Désvallières’ characters are more ghastly than the zippy, comic pace allows. Actually, the central Second Act, in the hotel, feels rushed at points – maybe a little under-rehearsed because Posner’s originally billed co-director Cal McCrystal (of One Man, Two Guvnors fame) has vanished from the credits.

Richard Wilson makes a cameo appearance, mildly leering as the maître d’hôtel. The plot twists tighten most enjoyably in the final act, as Pinglet wriggles out of trouble, and the spinning sets (designed by Michael Taylor) combine grandeur and madness, with tottering stairwells spiralling skywards.

Now, Coriolanus is rife with unfaithfulness too, except not of the sexually romping variety. Starting out as a rioting mob, the starving Roman masses accuse Shakespeare’s titular army commander of conspiring with his fat-cat, fellow patricians. When this same man’s military prowess saves them from a Volscian invasion, Coriolanus is back in favour, with commoners supporting his consulship bid. They turn against him again, nevertheless, and, in retaliation, he swears allegiance to his Volscian former foe, Aufidius.

Coriolanus breaks that oath – moved by his mother pleas – and ultimately faces assassination, for being perfidious.

Briefly imported this week by the Edinburgh International Festival, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre production was not exactly faithful to the text. The dialogue, in Mandarin, was pared down and translated back into plainer English (not Shakespeare’s iambics) for the surtitles.

Still, visually, this is an epic production, with a 60-strong cast. In a gilded breastplate, Pu Cunxin’s sturdy Coriolanus wields a huge silver sword in slow motion, as the grey-robed hordes brandish staves and swarm over a long flight of steps. Though the fight choreography’s sometimes slack, the lead actors blend stylization and naturalism, and the costumes blur ancient and modern – Jing Hao’s Aufidius having a touch of rockabilly-going-on-punk, collar up, in leather and chain mail.

In addition, co-directors Lin Zhaohua and Yi Liming have heavy metal bands on the sidelines, thrashing away. Musically, this might seem a bit 1970s, or in danger of turning into “Tommy: the Rock’n’Roman Tragedy”. Yet the aggressive bursts of drumming and electric guitar are often persuasively in tune with the Bard’s macho antagonists – and not without humour.

Coriolanus himself comes over as more long-suffering than arrogantly scornful regarding the mutinous plebeians. Make of that what you will. This is a troupe supported by the cultural ministry of the People’s Republic of China.

The Broadway musical named [Title of Show], is less likely to inspire headbanging, unless you find it unbearably vacuous. Showbiz fans will surely be jauntily toe-tapping at the Landor Theatre’s London fringe premiere of this teasing biomusical by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, in which buddies called Jeff and Hunter (here played by Simon Bailey and Scott Garnham) write a biomusical called [Title of Show] that eventually transfers to Broadway. The repartee is mix of the cute and the risqué. The songs – calculatedly derivative-cum-satiric – get catchier. Robert McWhir’s shoestring-budget production, with just four chairs and a pianist, is winning for its intimacy and its crack cast having fun. 

‘A Little Hotel on the Side’ (theatreroyal.org.uk) to 31 Aug; ‘[Title of Show]’ (landortheatre.co.uk) to  14 Sept

NEXT WEEK Kate Bassett is embroiled in another farce: Ben Travers’s Thark at the Park Theatre, London

Critic’s choice

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are electrifyingly sexy, wittily suave and moody in Nöel Coward’s Private Lives, at the Gielgud Theatre, London (to 21 Sept). The Bristol Festival of Puppetry  is taking over various venues (to 8 Sept), with international companies, and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey at the Brewery Theatre. It’s not all for kids, but caters for tots and upwards.