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Yesterday my daughter and I went to Bath, it’s only an hour and a half from us, and the delights of the city are many. Yesterday was all about shopping, dining and theatre – we’ve done the heritage bit on previous visits.  We arrived in time for lunch (Nandos), then got stuck into shopping…

One of the key shops to visit was Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a rather wonderful and well stocked bookshop, where I indulged a little of course, buying Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version, and an American import paperback Smonk, by Tom Franklin – a western that’s been on my wishlist for ages.

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Dinnner was at Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place, which is one of those posh little arcades of eateries and design shops.

Then our evening entertainment was at the Theatre Royal, a small but lovely theatre which has a formidable reputation for staging pre-West End runs of plays with top actors. Our mid-stalls seats turned out to be about the best in the house…

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The play we went to see was A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame). Feydeau was a prolific author in the Belle Époque era, and was famed for his farces.

This was not the first Feydeau/Mortimer farce I’ve been to. Back in 1989, I saw a production of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic starring Jim Broadbent. It was hilarious. Flea, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, was written in 1907 and involves: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments amongst its plot elements.

Feydeau HotelHotel, meanwhile which was written in 1894 is about: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments.  OK, they’re standard farce ingredients – just shuffle them about!

It’s about two couples, the Pinglets, and the Paillardins.  Mr Pinglet (Mr P), a builder, is rather hen-pecked by his domineering wife – he calls her the ‘hornet’, whereas Madame Paillardin feels ignored by her architect husband. Mr P and Mme Paillardin decide to have an affair and as Mr Paillardin will be away on business and Mme Pinglet is going to visit her sister, they set up their assignation at the Free Trade Hotel.  Before all this is to happen, Mathieu, a ‘friend’ of the Pinglets from their holiday turns up hoping to stay with them, and having brought his four daughters with him. Mathieu has a stutter, but only when it rains (loads of scope for f, f, fu, fu*, functioning type laughs there).

Needless to say, with his brood unwelcome at the Pinglets, they decamp to the hotel, where the Paillardin’s nephew Maxime is also planning to lose his virginity with the Pinglet’s maid, and Mr Paillardin has been legitimately hired to investigate poltergeists and ghosts.  So everyone, except Mme Pinglet, is in the same place at the same time. Mathieu and his girls are mistakenly given the same room as Mr Paillardin, who sees the girls in their nightdresses as ghosts and runs away.   There is much door-slamming - and Mr P and Mme Paillardin never manage to get a kiss before the police arrive on a raid and a lively chase ensues. Caught, Mr P says his name is Mr Paillardin, and Mme Paillardin gives her name as Mme Pinglet to the police. Mr P pays FFr5000 bail.

The next day, we’re back at the Pinglet’s house, and Mme Pinglet arrives back from her trip in a real state – her carriage’s horse had bolted and she ended up in a ditch. She declares her love for Mr P, saying ‘You nearly lost me!’ – only nearly he thinks.  Then a writ comes from the police for Mme P saying she must confirm her identity, and similarly one arrives for Mr Paillardin – of course neither were there at the time – how will this all be resolved?

An all-star cast was led by Richard McCabe, fresh from his Olivier award opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience, and maybe familiar on TV as one of Ken Branagh’s Wallander crew.

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In the late 1980s McCabe was at the RSC, and I will forever remember him as Puck in John Caird’s 1989 punky tutus and bovver boots staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (far right, with John Carlisle as Oberon).

Now in his early fifties, he made a wonderfully fleshy Mr P. His comic timing, facial contortions and asides to the audience were brilliant.  He was aided by Hannah Waddingham (whom we last saw as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz), was his toweringly tall and overbearing wife – a very scary woman!  Robert Portal and Natalie Walter played the Paillardins, he all brusque, she suitably histrionic, Tom Edden was manic as the stuttering Mathieu and, in what is little more than an extended cameo, Richard Wilson (familiar to many as Victor Meldrew in TV’s One Foot in the Grave), was the rather downbeat seen-it-all-before hotel manager.

It had some hilarious moments of slapstick and double-entendre, and everything happened at breakneck pace, yet there was something slightly not quite right about the ending, which was a little sudden.  I wasn’t sure that everything had been resolved satisfactorily – but that was deliberate on Feydeau’s part commenting on the Parisian upper classes habits of bending the rules to fit themselves apparently.

All in all this was a really fun performance in a great little theatre. We had a good time and it made a change from the unaffordable West End at less than half the price, and we were home before midnight.  A great day out.

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