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A Flea in Her Ear, The Old Vic

Georges Feydeau, translation by John Mortimer
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre
★★★★
Courtesy of The Old Vic
The Old Vic is very good at creating slick and well-polished productions, and one of the few able to consistently deliver genuinely funny comedies. Last season’s Design for Living was a perfect example of comic drama masterfully executed. Their follow up is their third production of A Flea in Her Ear, a play which first premiered at the Old Vic in 1966, and was briefly revived in 1989. In this instance, it is directed by Sir Richard Eyre (a past Director of the National Theatre, no less) and continues the trend by offering a brilliant and hysterical version of the farce.
The play itself, written by early 20th century French author Georges Feydeau, is in line with the traditional Commedia dell’arte influences of French Theatre. Slapstick, qui-pro-quo and caricatural characters provide the structure for an intrinsically funny script, which is delivered impeccably by the company. The story is based in late 19th century Paris – La Belle Époque – and prays on the extravagances of the upper classes to create a a web of plot lines which eventually spiral into an out of control farce. The usual comedic devices – false letters, secret meeting places and mistaken identities – drive the characters from one absurd situation to the next, until all out chaos insues. One of the major plot lines relies on the physical similarity between the sexually frustrated Monsieur Chandebise and the lovable bell-boy Poche. The play is designed such that only the audience is aware of the ensuing confusion, and watch helplessly as the characters get tangled up in a hysterical mess created by their own mutual mistrust.
The design of the production does well to capture the extravagant Belle Époque environment (especially for the ‘Hôtel Coq d’Or’, which is expertly represented in all it’s over-the-top, opulent glory), yet never tries to be more than is required to support the comedy of the script. The focus is well and truly on the acting in this production, where the light, sound and set, though immaculate, never distract from the intrigue or the performances.
Indeed, Eyre obviously made a conscious decision to make A Flea in Her Ear a memorable show not for the ‘wow factor’ of the production values, but for the flawless, riotous performances. He perfectly captures the mood of the play, and makes the most of the comedy associated with the script, and this is reflected in the acting, not only with the lead parts, but with the entire supporting cast. This is a situation where the ensemble work seamlessly together, and with impeccable comedic timing, to create a piece which is a pleasure not only to watch, but which the cast obviously enjoy performing. Furthermore, the star of the show, Tom Hollander (who many would recall from his roles in In the Loop or Pirates of the Carribean) is an absolute delight to see. As mentioned above, his roles involve him playing paired characters, Chandebise and Poche, the mistaken identity of which is a main driver of the plot. For many actors, the quick changes between personality, character and costume would constitute a formidable challenge, but Hollander executes this to hysterical perfection, even throughout the second half, where a lesser performance could have easily let the energy of the production stoop.
All in all, A Flea in Her Ear is a great night out. It is by no means ground-breaking or overly ambitious, and certainly never tries to be more than it is, but this seems to be intentional: in a scene where too many productions rely on gimmicks and devices to distract from poor acting or dry dialogue, it is incredibly refreshing to see a good, honest comedy, where the audience regularly erupt into waves of genuine laughter. This show is a great example of comedy as it should be, and well worth going out of your way to see.
A Flea in Her Ear runs at The Old Vic until 5th March 2011.
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