Theatre: Oops, there go my pantalons

COURT IN THE ACT ORANGE TREE RICHMOND
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INTERVIEWING BRIAN Rix on a recent edition of Midweek, Libby Purves wondered if he wasn't dismayed that, after all those 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. A fair bit of Feydeau and a soupcon of Labiche is about as far as it goes. Mention the names of Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber, another pair of 19th-century Parisian farceurs, and there is unlikely to be a stampede of recognition, except perhaps up in Manchester where two of their plays had pioneering productions at the Royal Exchange. Sam Walters' delightful staging of Court in the Act at the Orange Tree suggests we would do well to rummage deeper in the back catalogue of this talented collaborative team.

The proceedings are given an immediate charm by the way Walters and his first-rate ensemble cheekily point up the fact that an in-the-round theatre like the Orange Tree is, in some ways, an incongruous space for a classic proscenium-stage farce.

In this genre of fast and disastrous exits and entrances, doors play a starring role, but they wouldn't look at all natural in a set-up where the actors have to dart in and out through the corner aisles.

The solution here is to make a droll feature of the fact that there is a very visible sound effects man at the side supplying the noises of slammed doors, creaking turnstiles, etc, to the cast's mimed actions. It is a tactic that skillfully pulls the audience in to the idea of the play as an enchantingly elaborate contraption.

In Court in the Act, the Minister of Justice (Richard Heffer) declares that the legal system of the country has ground to a halt not by means of a revolution, but because of a beauty spot. The latter belongs to Lucy Tregear's seductive Gobette, a young musical star, who takes on a bet that she can conquer Tricointe, the fussily proper, self-important president of a provincial tribunal (David Timson). But an unscheduled visit from the Minister results in her bedding him, while having to pose as Tricointe's wife.

Will this ruin Tricointe or, as the reward for a hush-up, will it provide the back-door route to that longed-for promotion to Paris that has been barred to him thus far, he feels, by his scatty, low-born liability of a spouse, played by Auriol Smith?

With real wives and impostors ricocheting around the capital, his chances yo-yo dramatically. In one of the best running gags, a hapless minion at the Ministry (Paul Kemp), who is desperate to catch a train, has to redraft a contract no fewer than eight times.

Hennequin and Veber give the shenanigans a lovely spin with hilarious characters like Jeremy Crutchley's dim, conceited and accidentally suggestive bilingual policeman ("If you need any help, I have two tongues at your service") and Stuart Fox's excellent Marius, an old, bent snob of an usher at the Ministry who can't stand living in a republic and is therefore out to foil his unendurably non-aristocratic boss.

A sort of Oui, Monsieur Le Ministre on speed, this is a total treat.

To 30 Jan (0181-940 3633)

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