For the festive season at the delightful Orange Tree Theatre, Artistic Director Sam Walters offers a kind of grown up pantomime in the form of a totally lightweight French farce. I don’t think any kind of theatre makes me as nervous as, in my experience, farces tend to be either glorious or unbearable. Reggie Oliver’s translation of Alfred Hannequin and Alfred Delacour’s 1875 farce (a prototype in the genre) Once Bitten offers something in the middle: apart from some elements of snobbery that mark it out as very much of its time, the piece has its heart in the right place and the Belle Epoque costumes are delectable, but the writing isn’t consistently funny or frantic enough to sustain nearly two and a half hours.

As Reggie Oliver explains in the programme notes, farce developed in early nineteenth-century France as light entertainment for the emerging bourgeoisie who wanted to see elements from their own society on stage. I wonder if the new middle classes really were as rich and idle as the people who inhabit these plays and the attitude towards servants almost makes one wonder if the Revolution actually happened. I may be reading into something that isn’t there, but it did leave (to this reviewer at least) an aftertaste of smugness and snobbery.

The would-be lawyer Fauvinard is planning a rendezvous with his mistress Cesarine using his friend Tardivaut (a debonair Mark Frost) as his alibi, but nothing goes according to plan, especially when his interfering mother-in-law (played by Briony McRoberts with echoes of Endora from Bewitched) gets involved. An evil poodle also wreaks havoc and several hands have to be bandaged along with wounded dignities and egos.

David Antrobus’s high energy performance gives Fauvinard an appealing sense of an essentially decent man motivated more by a desire to escape from the home that his mother-in-law dominates than by lust (a pity that his wife Angele is such a nonentity). Michael Kirk has a small but rambunctious cameo as an officious Commissioner of Police and I liked Rebecca Egan in the brief role of a wronged wife in a potential divorce case, bringing a touch of stillness and poignancy amidst all the silliness.

Sam Dowson’s glamorous design makes full use of the Orange Tree’s unique space (I saw some children who seemed enchanted by the idea of being able to walk through the set at the interval) that acts as Fauvinard’s study, Cesarine’s boudoir and the study again. Sam Walters ensures that the cast embrace their characters’ one-note personalities and they mostly remain likable, which is no mean feat considering how limited they are. For frivolous escapism, it’s a show that’s mildly diverting, but not excessively so.

Once Bitten runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until February 5th 2011. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.