An Italian Straw Hat

It can be a dull old time after Christmas and New Year: the parties are all over and spring still seems a long way away. How better to dispel the blues than with a classic farce? As one character in this production says, ‘It’s splendid, it’s chivalrous and it’s French!’

In fact this production is quintessentially French, first performed in Paris in 1851 and later as a silent film comedy in 1928. That is quite a pedigree, both forms requiring – as is still the case today – perfect timing, slick choreography and a willing suspension of disbelief. The plot is fiendishly complicated, not to say nonsensical, and the characters all stereotypes.

But it is a good choice for the Maskers as they perform away from their home ground in Shirley and take on the much larger space of the Nuffield. Set designer John Hamon rises to the challenge of four distinct settings with elegance and simplicity, the flats remaining throughout but props changing appropriately. Sound (Jamie McCarthy) and lighting (David Cowley) give good support. Costumes by Serena Brown are outstanding, their flamboyance exactly as required for these outrageous characters.

And as might seem wise for a play involving 22 actors, there are three directors, Hazel Burrows, Paul Green and Christine Baker – truly a collaborative effort. Just as, no doubt, the directors played to their particular strengths, so has each actor by interpreting his or her part in any quirky manner they choose.

Is it forgivable, therefore, to have favourites? Bonnie Kaye as the maid, Virginia, has an irresistible giggle and innate sexiness. The same has to be said for Clara, the milliner, played by Kristina Wilde. Helen, the bride, played by Kate Grundy-Garcia, is a difficult role but Kate’s contortions trying to rid herself of the pin stuck down her bridal gown are hilarious. Marie McDade plays Annette Beaujolais, whose careless loss of her hat starts off the whole saga, and is convincing from start to finish. Jenni Watson, as La Comtesse de Champigny, also achieves credibility in a barely credible situation.

Male roles lend themselves even more to individuality in this play. John Souter’s good old boy, Vezinet, stone deaf, is inspired. Eric Petterson as the ignorant father of the bride puffs out his cheeks and hobbles around on sore feet in a way that must be of his own making. The bride’s cousin, Boby, is given a gay makeover, it seems, by Jonathan Barney-Marmont, which in terms of the script shouldn’t really work, but it certainly gets laughs. As Fadinard, the main character, Martin Humphrey has the difficult task of steering the plot through ever-increasing complications while still holding onto our interest in the eventual outcome. His own disintegration is brilliant.

This is a good choice for the Maskers, then, bringing together so many of this talented company but allowing them leeway. However, it is also an unusual choice: maybe a particular favourite of one of the directors? To put on such a classic farce somewhat out of tune with the dramatic fashion of the day is brave. It works because it is so seamlessly and professionally done – a real treat.

Future performances: 25-28 January at 7.30.