David Lewis’ new play at the Orange Tree works on the principle that the life of the famous French farceur Georges Feydeau was so farcical in its own right that it would make a brilliant basis for, well, a farce. And this is exactly what Lewis gives us.
Monkeys Uncle is a post-modern homage to the master of multiple exits and entrances, mistaken identities and fumbled encounters in hotel rooms. The play sees Feydeau (David Leonard) struggling to write a new play whilst grappling with the increasingly complex goings-on between his wife, mistress, friends and servants. Love notes fall into the wrong hands, intentions are misinterpreted and events spiral rapidly towards a disastrous liaison at the Hotel Terminus.
Ostensibly about the clash between animal instinct and civilised behaviour, Monkey’s Uncle sets some kind of record for “whoops, there go my trousers” moments. This being the Orange Tree, an intimate space in the round, all the opening and shutting of doors is mimed with the necessary side effects provided from the wings in endearingly low tech fashion.
As Feydeau, David Leonard is suitably roguish without slipping into caricature. Amanda Royle does excellent work as his put upon wife Marianne, as does Paul Kemp as the shuffling, snivelling dramatist Levasseur. As a pastiche of Feydeau’s writing, the play works well, though it takes a while to warm up. But it is a permeated by a self-aware quality that sometimes works against it. At one point Levasseur screams “this isn’t a Feydeau farce!” much in the same way as those irritating moments in films where one character announces to another: “Hey, what do you think this is? A movie?”
Fortunately in the third act things are given a very different spin. Whilst retaining Feydeau’s familiar home-hotel-home narrative structure, the action leaps forwards to the 21st century where George, a playwright (also played by Leonard) is writing a farce based on Feydeau’s life. This final segment, where all the characters return in contemporary guises, gives purpose to the play and allows for a discourse on the nature of farce whilst also letting the story proceed. By taking this step Lewis raises his play above the level of pastiche, resulting in a more thoughtful, satisfying work.
This last scene also speaks volumes about the ways in which comedy has evolved (and the ways in which it hasn’t) since Feydeau’s time. After an hour or so of belle poque undies and hiding in wardrobes, the moment when coked-up actress Christine (The Bill’s Beth Cordingly) bends over a table and informs psychiatrist Ben (played by Stuart Fox) that “I want you to stick it in me,” provides a brief burst of crudity that is surprisingly shocking.
It goes without saying that familiarity with Feydeau’s work will enhance appreciation of the play, but one of its strengths is that it’s perfectly accessible in its own right. Monkey’s Uncle is a little too pleased with its own cleverness, a little too keen to explain itself. But none of that would matter if, once it hit its stride, it didn’t provide the laughs. Fortunately it does and the second and third act offer up some top comic moments in addition to all the self-referential quirkiness.