A Little Hotel On The Side
Georges Feydeau & Maurice Désvallières
Adapted by John Mortimer
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Bath Theatre Royal
22nd August 2013, matinee
There are five words that collocate most frequently with “farce.” French farce, Feydeau farce, Ben Travers farce, Whitehall farce, Brian Rix Farce. French = Feydau, and Whitehall = Brian Rix.
So we’re on the earliest of the lot, in a French Feydeau farce in John Mortimer’s 1984 adaptation, of L’Hôtel du Libre échange from 1894. It was made into a film as Hotel Paradiso in 1966 with Gina Lollobrigida and Alec Guiness.
The Theatre Royal pissed me off before we started. You have actors of the calibre of Richard Wilson (One Foot In The Grave), Tom Edden (the ancient butler in One Man Two Guv’nors), Natalie Walter and Hannah Waddingham (Wizard of Oz, Spamalot) and you don’t list them in the programme because you printed it too early? Having screwed up the programme so royally, why not an A4 cast sheet, issued free? The RSC can do it. This was the best cast of Bath’s summer season in far and away the best production.
M. Pinglet (Richard McCabe) and Marcelle (Natalie Walter)
The plot? It’s a farce. M. Pinglet fancies his neighbour’s wife, Marcelle Paillardin. The neighbor, M. Paillardin (Robert Portal), is an uptight asexual architect. Pinglet’s wife is a dragon. Paillardin’s nephew is an innocent philosophical youth seduced by the Pinglet’s maid (a particularly well-done scene). Mathieu is an old acquaintance who turns up with five huge trunks and four young daughters to stay.
They all end up in act two in the sleazy flea-infested hotel, or house of assignation. Paillardin, as an architect, has been appointed to check out tales of hauntings at the hotel. The usual farcical slamming of doors and mistaken identity rules.
Richard McCabe was the best Puck I’ve ever seen (by a mile) in John Caird’s 1989 RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was also brilliant as Mephistopholes in Doctor Faustus with Jude Law at the Young Vic ten years ago. Hey, I’m an amateur reviewer. I missed a lot in between including his acclaimed Harold Wilson in The Audience. But what I did see of McCabe was enough to make this the first choice as we ticked the order form in Bath’s 2013 season. I thought McCabe, as the central figure, Pinglet, was the perfect farceur. He has the ability to step aside and address the audience with a wink and a nod, or merely a tiny glance, which reminded me of Brian Rix, though McCabe must be too young to recall when Brian Rix’s farces. They were transmitted live from the Whitehall Theatre, and were the fixed point of TV on Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and August Bank Holiday. This ability is a magic, star quality and hard to define. It’s something to do with staying in character, but using inaction when not central, then sudden action. It’s something to do with perfect timing. Simon Russell-Beale has it. Even some of the greatest actors lack it. McCabe also has the large eyes for the part … compare both Brian Rix and Frankie Howard. The large eyes convey the appealing Adamic innocent in contrast to what the character’s getting up to.
McCabe, as is essential in such things, has his trousers drop around his ankles, though only once. Here’s a point on farce too. In farce the trousers drop to reveal underwear, saucy if female. But if the trousers reveal scarlet boxer shorts with white dots or a union jack or bunny rabbits, it’s pantomime, not farce. Here the boxer shorts are plain white. Pinglet is the seducer in the play, a somewhat inept seducer too, terrified of his wife (Hannah Waddiingham) and chasing his neighbour’s wife, Marcelle (Natalie Walter). The terrifying wife goes back to medieval biblical mystery cycles and The Wife of Noah. The farce wife has a loud voice (see Elspeth Gray, aka Mrs Rix, in Whitehall farces) and should preferably be taller than her husband. Hannah Waddington is perfect. Like Elspeth Gray, the fact that she’s very attractive lightens the many disparaging references to her.
Mathieu (Tom Edden) and Madame Pinglet (Hannah Waddington)
Tom Edden is Mathieu, the friend from Dieppe, who turns up unexpectedly with his four daughters, expecting to stay chez Pinglet. The programme notes that in farce pople should play seriously as if their life depended upon it. Not quite true. There’s usually one who is over the top, because of something external. Inadvertent drunkeness is a favorite. Extreme old age another. Brian Rix had the actor who played the handyman / doctor / butler / waiter or whatever, who would get drunk, or inhale laughing gas or knock his head badly. Any of these would render him incapable, falling about, crashing into doors, bumping into people. In this farce, Mathieu is that central bizarre role. Mathieu is a lawyer who has a stammer but only whenever it rains, and an accompanying leg jerk kick reaction which always hits the wrong and tender spot. It’s fabulous as he stammers “Fu… fu … fu …’ inevitably ending up with something harmless. The daughters, all graded by age and height, are superb juvenile roles, always speaking in unison.
Richard Wilson as Bastien, the hotel proprietor
Richard Wilson is a cameo as the hotel proprietor, who only appears in act two. Programme again! His sidekick plump porter is an actor I’ve seen before (Headlong’s Romeo & Juliet is my guess) but no programme credit. They have a drill so they can bore holes in the walls and play peeping Tom on guests. Another fine cameo (only act three) is Michael Mears at the police inspector from the Dept. of Public Morality, and (no programme again!) I think he’s the transvestite tart that the elderly gent brings to the hotel as well.
Richard McCabe and Richard Wilson / Pinglet and Bastien
There’s a large cast … porters, policemen, hotel guests, and I like the three act play presented as three acts as written, rather than the normal two thirds (two acts) / one third (one act), but in this play the set changes (Pingel’s apartment / the hotel / Pingel’s apartment) dictate this. In Act two, the hotel stairs disappear into the top of the stage, and it needs a reception area and two large rooms at the side. The revolving stage is used to bring the side rooms more central as the action takes place in them, just a few feet shift rather than a scene change, but it’s highly effective and allows action to spill into the central area.
Pinglet returns over the balcony
The five main actors (McCabe, Portal, Edden, Waddingham, Walter) interact beautifully. An excellent example of classic farce with accomplished practicioners of the art (the hardest of all, for me), though I wonder if there are worthier plays to apply all this expertise to. However, those Whitehall farces shine so brightly in the memory, but perhaps they are no better than this one.
Yet another complaint on the “Four play season programme” at Bath. When they get to number four, it says “Monsieur Pinglet – Richard McCabe. Henri Paillardin – Robert Portal. Further casting to be announced.” Then Robert Portal is missed out of the cast bios at the end. Richard Wilson and Tom Edden get nary a mention, nor do the three great female roles.