An Italian Straw Hat is classic farce. Written about 150 years ago by prolific French writer Eugene Labiche and collaborator Marc Michel, it has also been a silent film and a ballet. This stage version has been translated from the original text by May-Brit Akerholt and is directed by Joseph Uchitel for the East Coast Theatre Company.
The story follows the plight of soon-to-be wed Fadinard whose horse eats a straw hat hanging on a tree. This minor incident triggers a preposterous hunt for an identical straw hat to prevent the hat’s owner’s husband from finding out that his wife is having an affair. The wedding party falls into chase across Paris as the hapless groom attempts to find the hat and get on with his wedding, which the bride’s father calls off time and time again, much to the delight of bride’s besotted cousin who thinks he should take her hand. Mistaken identities abound, deceptions are uncovered, the plot thickens... or rather it runs about all over the place. But with farce, plot’s not meant to be scrutinsed; it’s just the vehicle for the jokes and the comic delivery.
The pace of the play is downright frenetic, with actors entering and exiting at both ends of the stage, which ran between two banks of audience seats. The period costumes are rich in colour and the opulence of upper class Paris is hinted at in the many layers of curtain hanging plushly from the high ceiling.
The play is apparently one of the first to give vaudeville a more sophisticated flavour, moving away from the caricature and grotesque style so typical of such humorous theatre of the time. But there was enough high-camp parody and pratfalls to clearly define it as proper farce. Performances were pretty solid overall, and the gags came thick and fast. Musical interludes rarely do it for me, but others lap them up.
So did it work? Hard to say. The problem with this kind of theatre is that although hugely popular in its day, it can feel a little antiquated, the jokes that might have been comic genius in their day can feel a little quaint or just plain old. One character who was hard of hearing kept mishearing what was being said to him, and for me it just wasn’t funny enough to succeed as a running joke – it actually became quite annoying. With a device like this, you just feel you’ve seen it done countless times before, and to greater effect. In fact a few of the running jokes felt like they needed to be cut.
Some of it worked though and there was some fine comic acting, as with the character Achille de Rosalba (played by Chris Leaney) who minced and foppped about the stage like Julian Clary on acid. Such moments made up for some of the other moments which felt a bit flat.
In the end, An Italian Straw Hat felt a little longer than it needed to be and maybe some of those clunkers being removed might have killed two birds with one stone. But looking across at the other bank of audience on the other side of the action, some faces rarely stopped smiling and many people were laughing heartily throughout. I guess it was one of those times when my sense of humour might have been out of whack with what was working on the night.
I came away from the old Performance Space HQ feeling as though I had just seen a big, flamboyant, over-excited, well-produced, well-realised relic.
East Coast Theatre Company presents
An Italian Straw Hat
By Eugene Labiche & Marc Michel
In a new adaptation by May-Brit Akerholt
The Old Performance Space | Cleveland Street Redfern
1 – 23 June
Tuesday - Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 5pm
Ticketek 1300 795 012 or www.ticketek.com