A Flea in Her Ear

Theatre, Comedy
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A Flea in Her Ear
Photograph: Brett Boardman
Helen Christinson and Harriet Dyer

The creative team behind Sydney Theatre Company's 5-star 2013 hit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead return for a sex farce by Georges Feydeau

To praise Georges Fedyeau’s 1907 play as a “hilarious roller-coaster ride” might sound like outdated and clichéd hype, but it’s an accurate description of the Sydney Theatre Company’s flawless execution of Andrew Upton’s sparkling new adaptation. 

Fedyeau perfected the formula for building a symphonic climax of laughter, and Flea is one of the original and best in a massive genre: French farce. At the time these popular plays were regarded as ephemeral entertainment, but they endured to inspire writers throughout the 20th century, from the absurdists to Fawlty Towers.

Feydeau’s focus was the infidelities of respectable Parisian families. In this 1907 comedy, the wife of insurance agent Victor-Emmanuel has a metaphorical flea in her ear: suspicion about her husband’s recent lack of attention in bed. She conspires to test his faithfulness by sending him an anonymous invitation to meet at the disreputable Snatch Time Hotel. But the plan backfires due to various reasons, the most implausible and amusing being that the porter at Snatch Time is a dead ringer for her husband. 

In this critical element of the drama, the STC’s superb production places the mighty comic actor David Woods, whose body language is so clear that the audience knows which of his characters has entered before he says a word, despite fast and confusing costume changes. 

Director Simon Phillips brilliantly multiplies Feydeau’s Doppelgänger device by casting the low-lifes at Snatch Time with the actors who played the respectable city folk in Act 1. Among several excellent studies in Jekyll & Hyde contrast, Sean O’Shea is outstanding. A thinking man’s Mr Bean with a magnificent bass-baritone voice, he plays both Victor-Emmanuel’s doctor and an endearing alcoholic regular convalescing in the hotel. Tim Walters is the designated Hot Batchelor for 95% of his time visible on stage, with an important 5% of his time as the loud grunting English pervert named Rugby closeted in Room 7. Justin Smith nails the equivalents of both Basil Fawlty and Manuel, next to Leon Ford’s glorious Sybil-like travesty. The scale and precision in so much well-coordinated talent here is impressive, driving the rollercoaster plot flawlessly and at exactly the right speed at every turn. 

Upton plays further on the doubling device, with the occasional remark on the evil twin similarities, and out-of-frame moments in which characters complain directly to the audience about the absurdity of the situation that their plot has drawn them into. These are highlights among strong performances by Harriet Dyer and Helen Christinson, lit starkly from the sides by Nick Schlieper.

Costume and stage designer Gabriela Tylesova produces beautiful scenes with the organic curves of the Art Deco period, the high point being a spectacular tableau of group depravity on on the hotel’s revolving bed. Even the set changes have an brisk electromechanical elegance.

Upton deftly updates the language with a contemporary timbre, and improves on many details of Feydeau’s complicated stage business, such as giving a prosthetic palate to the speech-impaired Camille: here Harry Greenwood mumbles exquisitely whenever cruelly separated from it. 

The title phrase ‘Une puce à l'oreille’ could have many translations along the lines of “a bee in her bonnet” or “red flags” but most of the text translates easily, because its appeal lies not in any poetry but in its precise construction of an elaborate series of actions contrived to stress-test the desperate characters with blows that only the audience understands: they don’t know what hit them, but we do. It’s Schadenfreude on methamphetamines. Go feel the thrill of laughing wildly at the misfortunes of fictional characters who are very recognisable, highly animated and completely bewildered.

By: Jason Catlett

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