Top hats and no trousers

Theatre - Sheridan Morley enjoys a French farce but finds Pinter's novel doesn't work as a play

''Farce," the late Ben Travers once told me, "is all about doors. They have to open and close at embarrassing moments, and the wrong people have to keep coming through them." Nobody, at least in this country, has ever known more about farce than "Big Ben". It is therefore courageous of Sam Walters to produce and direct Georges Feydeau's The Game Hunter on the Orange Tree's open stage, without so much as a convenient door - or even cupboard - in sight.

If you sit stage left at this production, you have the added delight of watching Samantha Tagg, the deputy stage manager, making all the right noises of doors opening and closing, and even playing a piano, which on stage is merely mimed. She is surely set for a glorious future as a BBC Radio sound-effects specialist.

When this translation by Richard Cottrell was first staged in 1964, it seemed to me less confident, less hilarious than the two other Feydeau farces that John Mortimer had recently adapted for Laurence Olivier's new National Theatre at the Old Vic. At the time, I was inclined to ascribe this to Mortimer himself being a playwright. But now I am not so sure. Cottrell takes fewer liberties with the original, allowing the marital-infidelity plot to take its time in coming to a climax, in which men wearing top hats but no trousers are obliged to reconsider the survival of both their marriages and their liaisons more-than-dangereuses.

As Groucho Marx once noted, whereas it is enough for comedy to have an actor dressed as an old lady tumble down a steep staircase, for farce you need a real old lady. This is perhaps the only genre of theatre at which the French surpass us, as all those with memories of the Whitehall Theatre in the 1950s and 1960s can testify. To find a series of equally good British farces, you have to go all the way back to the productions that the aforementioned Ben Travers staged at the Aldwych in the late 1920s.

Travers realised that classic farce has to have an element of cruelty. The only moment of cruelty in this production occurs when a smug and self-satisfied poet (Stuart Fox) discovers that his cherished first volume has been used to support a shaky desk leg. Pride has seldom come more injured.

In the same conversation, Travers also referred to the new National Theatre's catastrophic opening production of Carlo Goldoni's Il Campiello. "Surely," he said, "if they want to open the bloody thing with a really bad play, it should at least be a really bad English play?"

You have to be addicted to Harold Pinter for Kerry Lee Crabbe's adaptation of his only novel, The Dwarfs, to grab you. It is interesting, in a way, to know what Pinter was writing before he became the leading playwright of his generation. And, given that at the time he was the same age as the three young men he was writing about, it is also an opportunity to hunt for clues.

Clues are vital to any amateur Pinter scholar, as he has steadfastly refused to talk about the meaning of his plays. Alan Ayckbourn, as a young actor, appeared in one of them, and asked the playwright to give him some insight into his character. "Mind your own f***ing business," Pinter replied.

This production is the work of a small group of dedicated actors, an obsessed adaptor, and a fine young director. All the interests that Pinter would later explore are in evidence - friendship, perfidious women, buses, cricket, Hamlet, jealousy and, above all, the subtext beneath the seemingly banal. Despite the dedication that has gone into this production, however, it has to be said that The Dwarfs doesn't really work as a play. Developed at the National Theatre Workshop and then picked up as a film for the big Pinter celebratory year, it consists of short scenes interrupted by rather clunky scene changes. Filmic by nature, it does not lend itself easily to the stage. When a couple refer to themselves as naked, they plainly aren't, and when a character drops a stone into a pond, the effect is heard but not seen.

There is no plot here, no situation really, just three young men - the actor, the tailor-turned-City gent, the writer, all representing some aspect of Pinter - and one young woman, in various permutations, talking.

The Game Hunter is at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA (020 8940 3633) until 24 May; then in repertory from 29 May until 12 July at Alan Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (01723 370 541)

The Dwarfs is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) until 31 May

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