Among the great names of theatrical comedy, Georges Feydeau is still worthy of a very high place. During a phenomenally successful career spanning more than thirty years he wrote 38 farces, not only popular in his native France but translated all over the world. They also lend themselves very well to modern adaptation, and I remember hooting with delight at Leonard Rossiter in 1977 when a schoolmate and I went to see “The Frontiers of Farce” at the Old Vic, the first act of which was Feydeau’s “On Purge Bébé”, concerning the plight of a manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots – which broke; and in 1988 when the newly married Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our parents, again to the Old Vic, to see “A Flea in her Ear”.
My memory of those shows is that they were standard revivals rather than re-workings. Many of Feydeau’s plays are good enough simply to translate them and get on with it. But that’s not the kind of thing one has come to expect from Spymonkey on their regular visits to the Royal and Derngate. They’re back – well half of them – and working with Told by an Idiot’s co-artistic director Paul Hunter, and two fresh but equally wacky cast members, on a modern re-telling of Feydeau’s Le Système Ribardier, sometimes translated as Every Trick in the Book, but here, in Tamsin Oglesby’s version, as “Every Last Trick”.
The result is a brilliantly hilarious evening at the theatre, not quite in the usual Spymonkey tradition of an improvised, entirely original, surreal, abstract hotch-potch; but with a proper script, in a proper recognisable setting, and with proper characters. To give you a clue as to what goes on: Juan is Angela’s second husband, he a roué with a Spanish accent, she paranoid about the infidelity of men – Juan in particular – as her first husband, Jacques, had obviously put it about a bit. Juan is a member of the magic circle and has found a way of carrying on affairs behind Angela’s back – he hypnotises her every time he goes out and has his way with the wine merchant’s wife, then wakes her up on his return. Unless you know the magic words that will make her sleep and wake her up, you’ve got no clue as to how it happens. Hence the trick of the title. Into this deception stumbles Tom, who has carried a candle for Angela for many years, as he has heard that she is no longer married. But he didn’t realise she’d already married Juan, so, deeply disappointed, he prepares to head back to Burma/Borneo on his elephant. But, not so fast, they want him to stay – which he accepts, in the hope himself of a spot of hows-your-father with Angela, and by the time we’ve got to that stage of the plot, the only way out is completely nonsensical – not that there’d been much sense this far.
You can’t understate the brilliance and comic inspiration of the team when it comes to creating ludicrously funny situations and following them through to their illogical conclusions. Whether they do it to music, or by involving the audience, or using ham magic, the lengths to which they will go knows no bounds. At least in this show they do manage to keep their kit on, which is not something you can always guarantee. It’s virtually impossible – and not very helpful – for me to attempt to explain some of the things they do; it’s much better if you go and see it for yourself and allow yourself to be stunned and marvelled at their ridiculous exploits.
I can tell you though that the cast of four are just superb throughout. Spymonkey boss Toby Park is Tom, arriving in England in his jungle outfit, hot off the elephant, the very embodiment of stiff upper lippishness, which means he can be both noble and a prat at the same time. Sophie Russell is wonderful as the paranoid and magically narcoleptic Angela; she’s also delightfully frightfully English, juxtaposing nicely with her tap dancing eccentricities and surprising tendency to bully the menfolk. Spymonkey’s Aitor Basauri is just sensational in his clowning, which can be deft and subtle, or outrageously overblown. He has the ability to render the audience helpless with laughter with just one twitch of an eyebrow, and he sets up such a brilliant rapport with us that you sense you know precisely what he’s thinking all the way through. I think he may have become my favourite comedy actor after this performance. The final member of the quartet is Adrien Gygax, who also gives a splendidly funny physical comedy performance as the dipsomaniac servant Gus. They all work together so well though, that the whole show is a complete team effort.
Spymonkey just get better and better each time you see them. Whether it’s the collaboration with Paul Hunter or the fact they’ve got a more tangible script to deal with, I don’t know; but I think this particular show has absolutely brought the best out of them all. They’re having so much fun out there themselves, that it really spreads to us in the audience. There were a large number of corpsing moments last Friday night – which in a production like this just adds to the general hilarity – and you’ve got absolutely no idea whether they’re intentional or not. That’s the magic of live theatre – no two performances are ever identical – and I would imagine that rule applies to this show more than most. It’s on at the Royal until 10th May – and if you like an evening of blissfully stupid comedy, you can’t go anywhere better.
P.S. The programme alerts us to the fact that Spymonkey regular Stephan Kreiss is currently under the watch of heart surgeons, which Mrs C and I were very sorry to read. However, I have it on good authority that he is well on the mend and will be back with more lunacy soon. We wish him all the very best for a speedy recovery!