One of the best farcical scenes in drama, if played well, is the clumsy battle between the daft young lovers, lost in the forest, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And one could argue that the hotel in Feydeau’s farces serves a similar end to the forest in Shakespeare: it’s an unfamiliar place where inhibitions are shed and lessons are learned. It’s a physical location that also has a symbolic role: the hotel reveals the grubbier instincts of Feydeau’s well-to-do Parisian characters.
So it is that in A Little Hotel on the Side (John Mortimer’s English version of this 1894 piece by Feydeau and Maurice Désvallières), respectable Monsieur Pinglet heads for a disreputable hotel when he hopes to bed the frustrated wife of his best friend. Unfortunately, his would-be lover’s husband just happens to be staying in the same establishment – supposedly checking out whether the hotel is haunted – along with just about everybody Pinglet knows. Cue slamming doors, dropped trousers and increasingly panicked confusion: in the classic second act, all sorts of things go bump in the night, but not because of spooks or passion.
Lindsay Posner’s richly cast production revels in the slapstick while also drawing out Feydeau’s acid depiction of hypocrisy among the Parisian bourgeoisie. And his staging reminds us that at the root of the comedy is marital misery: take away the laughs and you have a grim picture of two loveless, sexless marriages. Richard McCabe’s Pinglet frequently confides to the audience how much he hates his wife (the wonderful Hannah Waddingham, here as sensual as a coat stand) and though McCabe keeps it light, he is a very fine actor and brings a real sting to his remarks.
But while the staging demonstrates Feydeau’s tart reading of human psychology, in the end a farce stands or falls on how funny it is – and this one, while often amusing, never quite delivers the desirable hysteria. Feydeau’s verbal quips feel heavy-handed these days, one running gag based on a stutter seems pretty crass and the physical comedy, while droll, doesn’t build to a level where, no matter how obvious a pratfall, you still guffaw helplessly.
There’s much lovely work from the cast – Richard Wilson playing a seedy old hotelier; Tom Edden as an irritating visitor with spaghetti legs; Natalie Walter making the love interest rather dim. But it all feels a bit creaky: as with the characters’ amorous adventures, it’s not quite as much fun as hoped.