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A Flea in Her Ear

Tom Hollander is superb in Richard Eyre's enjoyable revival of Feydeau's classic farce.

By London
Jonathan Cake and Tom Hollander
in A Flea in Her Ear
(© Manuel Harlan)
Jonathan Cake and Tom Hollander
in A Flea in Her Ear
(© Manuel Harlan)
Richard Eyre's revival of Georges Feydeau's classic French farce A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic is energetic and enjoyable in places even if it never hits the exquisite peaks of farce at its best.

Presented in a translation by the late John Mortimer, the play is set in Paris in 1900, where Victor Emmanuel Chandebise's (Tom Hollander) failures to perform in the bedroom have led his wife Raymonde (Lisa Dillon) to suspect him of having an affair. In the hope of catching him in the act, she sends him an anonymous, copiously perfumed love note suggesting a liaison at the Hotel Coq D'or, an establishment of dubious reputation.

Chandebise mistakenly believes the letter was intended for his dashing friend Romain Tournel (Jonathan Cake), a renowned ladies man, so he sends him to meet the mysterious admirer instead, setting in motion an increasingly knotty plot involving numerous misunderstandings, a case of mistaken identity, and a passion-crazed Spaniard armed with a duelling pistol.

While Eyre's production has been polished to a shine, and the timing of the cast can't be faulted, there's a feeling of forced franticness in places. The opening scenes feel slightly stiff and the dizzy turmoil of the hotel lobby feels too overtly choreographed. There are, however, a number of individual moments where everything suddenly comes together and it becomes almost impossible not to laugh.

Feydeau's plot relies heavily on speech impediments and comedy foreigners and the production makes no excuses for this; indeed it seems to revel in these extremes and play upon them. This results in some ripe but unabashed performances from some of the cast, in particular from John Marquez who employs an accent thick as syrup as the language-mangling, violently jealous Spaniard.

The play hinges on the fact that the prim Victor Emmanuel bears an uncanny resemblance to Poche, the dipsomaniacal hotel porter at the Coq D'or. And the superb Hollander, playing both roles, resists the urge to mug. He makes everything look effortless, even though some of his costume changes occur in a matter of seconds, switching nimbly from character to character and conveying both men's increasing bafflement at the way everyone else is behaving around them. His look of confused resignation as Lloyd Hutchinson's hotel manager resumes kicking him around the room is a delight.

Dillon seems slightly tentative as Mme Chandebise and her performance sometimes gets overshadowed as a result. The remainder of the cast however seem content to dial their performances up to eleven.

Rob Howell's set also throws all notions of taste aside as it transforms from the sober Chandebise drawing room to the lobby of the Coq D'or, a feast of cheap gilt, black velvet and eye-searing pink.


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