Surrendering to the insanity that is Feydeau’s farce “A Flea in Her Ear” is a case of “double your pleasure, double your fun.” Why? Because the “are they/aren’t they having an affair” shenanigans are topped off with a whirlwind mistaken identity plot with one actor playing both upstanding Victor and lamebrain porter Poche. To say that Tom Hollander seizes that opportunity is a major understatement. His breathtaking combination of lightning physical precision and shockingly true confusion are beyond price. Richard Eyre’s production sometimes mistakes speed for comedy, but farce fans won’t be disappointed.
From a jealous Spaniard (explosively foot-stamping John Marquez) to a snobby butler (exhaustingly disdainful Tim McMullan) via a louche Welsh hotelier (Di Botcher) and a furiously uptight German (Walter van Dyk) it’s unlikely that, outside of an antique joke, you’ll ever find so many comedy stereotypes in one place.
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Yet the carefully controlled exaggeration of Eyre’s production stops all this from teetering over into offence. That’s particularly good news considering that one particularly absurd plotline concerns a cleft palette. With and, most particularly, without the doctor’s device that cures his affliction, Freddie Fox’s Camille is both frantic and marvelously benign. And it’s his snatched illicit kiss with maid Antoinette (beady Maggie Service) in the opening seconds that sets the crucial tone of high-speed desperation.
From there on in, events grow increasingly complicated. Almost everyone is up to no good, but wrongly convinced her husband Victor is having an affair, Raymonde (Lisa Dillon) and her friend Lucienne (Fiona Glascott) write a note to him luring him to an assignation at the notorious Hotel Coq D’Or. Lucienne’s husband intercepts the note and thinks his own wife is faithless and, after a first act of everyone rushing in and out of plots, he and everyone else hurtles off to the hotel to trap each other.
After the formality of Victor’s grandly bourgeois home, Rob Howell’s second act set for the gilded but grimy hotel feels like a seriously abrupt shift in gear. Although it provides the farce necessity of doors solid enough for the slamming, its cramped space doesn’t quite allow for the action to breathe. And in this act in particular, the haste in the ensemble playing becomes so furious that the links between the characters become blurred which lessens the comedy. Lose sight of the stakes in farce and it all becomes enervating.
The final act, however, keeps everything in balance. It also features Tom Hollander at his matchless best. His ability to make a character’s thoughts instantly legible hits paydirt as he ricochets between not one but two people in chaos. He has the true comedian’s gift of being able seemingly to stretch time with the equivalent of a held reaction shot. He reduces the audience to hysterics as he skids to a halt and with one baleful expression makes you see him thinking: “You understand, I don’t. Help me!”
With a cast of 14 plus five non-speaking roles, this is hardly the safest bet for a transfer, but production’s exuberance should happily fill the Old Vic coffers.