THEATRE / Knowing its farce from its elbow: Paul Taylor on Peter Hall's production of Feydeau's An Absolute Turkey

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The Independent Culture
The last time Gerald Scarfe worked on a Peter Hall production in this country, it proved rather a case of fetching coals to Newcastle. The show was Born Again, a musical based on Ionesco's Rhinoceros, the irony being that if there's a creature on whom God nipped in and did a pre-emptive Gerald Scarfe job of His own, then it must be that one. There's clearly somewhat less risk of redundancy with a Feydeau farce, though the news that Scarfe was going to design An Absolute Turkey (Hall's adaptation with his wife, Nicki Frei, of Le Dindon) will have generated misgivings in anyone who remembers Richard Jones's spectacularly misguided 1989 version of A Flea in Her Ear.

Completely missing the point that the madness and frenzy in a Feydeau farce must burst out from a world of prosaic middle-class solidity, that production and the Quay Brothers' design presented the piece as an expressionist Kraft-Ebbingised impotence- nightmare whose strenuously abnormal decor (even the front curtain sported huge, pointedly mattressy stains) left the farce all dressed up but with nowhere to go.

Fears that Scarfeian grotesquery would in like manner upstage An Absolute Turkey are quickly allayed by surprisingly restrained sets, which do, however, raise mild doubts of their own. Aren't all the crushed velvet walls and witty art nouveau design features just a shade too, well, arty for Feydeau's bourgeois personnel who include, after all, a lawyer who, in his picture-collecting, evidently does not know his art from his elbow?

But if the decor strikes a slightly sharp note, Hall's handling of the tricky modulations of tone and shifts of pace win increasing admiration as the evening proceeds. The play is, in some respects, an awkward customer, for it is only Act 2, set in a chaotically overbooked hotel room, that builds up a truly sustained and delirious farce momentum. Here, surrounded by a swirl of clandestine activity in cupboards and adjoining chambers, an elderly army doctor (excellent Peter Cellier) and his stone-deaf wife (Linda Spurrier) are seen getting ready to turn in and repeatedly, and in her case quite unwittingly, triggering the cacophonous alarm that's been planted under the bed by others to entrap a pair of adulterers.

This high point, exuberantly achieved here, is flanked by a first act in which the farcical flurries are punctuated by talky comedy of manners about male double standards on adultery and by a smaller-scale last act, which, though very funny, moves at times to the less frenzied rhythms of situation comedy. It would be unfair in either case to charge the production with being under-driven. The last act in particular is a delight, with Griff Rhys Jones in captivatingly hapless form as a playboy who, like the hotel room in the previous scene, finds himself a trifle overbooked. He's confronted by not one woman but two, each keen to use his services in order to pay back an errant husband in kind. The only trouble is that he is so thoroughly shagged out after an all-nighter with a floozie, he can hardly stand up, let alone get it up. His would-be Lothario lope towards Felicity Kendal's Lucienne looks like the final stages of a sponsored walk across the Sahara. Repeated buttings-in from Ken Wynne's hilariously interfering family retainer don't help to bring out the Casanova in him either.

The fact that we know that injured Lucienne won't actually turn adulteress, and that her husband has erred only once, lays a slightly irritating safety net under the proceedings, which, despite a flirtatiously half-open ending, are in no danger of veering into Ortonesque sexual radicalism. But the acting (especially from Nicholas Le Prevost as a dementedly jerky jerk) turns An Absolute Turkey into a more than modest success.

The Globe, London W1 (071-494 5065).

(Photograph omitted)