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The French have always believed that a little sexual shenanigans outside marriage is a Frenchman’s right. Georges Feydeau made exquisite use of this accepted double standard in his farces one of which, Where There’s a Will — originally Le Systême Ribadier — is currently on tour prior to the West End. There is a delicacy and charm about a Feydeau farce no matter how frenetic the action becomes, and nothing is more enticing or amusing than a lustful monsieur coming up against the strictures of respectability, honour and dignity, not to mention the suspicions of a wife.
It is Paris, 1890. Angèle, a widow, is married to Monsieur Ribadier. She is convinced that all men are liars and cheats since discovering, courtesy of the little black book found among her late husband’s effects, just how many affairs he enjoyed. Can she trust Ribadier? Of course not! He is having an affair with Madame Savinet, the wine dealer’s wife. When Thommereux, an old friend of both the husbands who is passionate about Angèle, turns up unannounced after some years, Ribadier’s systême for keeping his wife in the dark is in danger of collapse, and the plot unfolds at an increasingly fevered pitch.
‘Every Feydeau character is sooner or later in a terrible crisis, and the only way out is a fever of words,’ writes Peter Hall in the programme notes. Yet his production of Where There’s a Will fails to reach this level of uproar, in spite of a very funny Ribadier from Nicholas Le Prevost.
The actor plays the first scene at such a pitch that I did wonder just how fevered he could become. There was no need to worry — the bluff and bluster of Le Prevost’s elegant, arrogant and charming Ribadier, executed with impeccable precision, is a delight throughout.
David Warner, always magnetic, always interesting, and back on the British stage for the second time in eighteen months after a 30 year absence caused by stage fright, seems to have been directed to play Thommereux as if he were Chebutykin in Three Sisters. While Warner’s shambling roué of a man is charming and funny, as well as difficult to keep one’s eyes off, the overall effect helps to create less a farce than a gentle comedy of despair.
Elaine Paige as Angèle is occasionally stymied by the contrasting rhythms of her two leading men. She provokes laughter and gains our sympathy as the wife who uses her feminine wiles to flush out her cheat of a husband and bat away the attentions of Thommereux but there is something missing; it is as if she is itching to fly but unable to get high enough off the ground to engage fully with her character.
Amanda Shillabeer gives a spirited performance as the maidservant, Sophie, while David Bamber is quietly engaging as the very particular, very proper, rather gauche, cuckolded wine dealer, Savinet.
Each performance has much to recommend it and together the actors offer us a gently entertaining evening. And there’s the rub for it lacks that sustained sense of increasing panic as crisis succeeds crisis that is the essence of farce, leaving one vaguely unsatisfied.
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V 25-05-03
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