Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 13 May 2017
The best play I’ve seen so far this year is the Orange Tree’s revival of 80s all-female comedy-drama Low Level Panic, so I had tentative high hopes for Lottery of Love, an adaptation of Marivaux’ little-performed 18th century comedy Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard. These hopes were more than fulfilled.
The plot is classic farce: a betrothed couple who have not yet met simultaneously decide to swap places with their respective servants in order to gauge their intended’s true personality. Each of the four instantly falls for their ‘other half’ (faux for faux, as it were) erroneously believing themselves to be in love with the wrong person. Thus begins “a fight to the death between common sense and love.” Performed in the round (with regularly direct address to the audience), an intricate suspension of roses and tea lights makes clever use of the intimate space, turning it into a garden of romance and intrigue.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett leads the cast as Sylvia in a beautifully observed performance: subtle and forlorn when needed, sometimes fierce, and going all out for laughs where appropriate. A young woman of strong character, she is dismissive of men (especially handsome ones!) and demands a man of equal character who can be her true and honest partner. Her rather didactic beliefs are shaken by the experience of falling in love, but Sylvia loses neither her head nor her moral core and principles, holding out for a man who will offer her marriage based on her own self and not her money or family even when it appears it will cost her the love of her life.
Ashley Zhangazha (as Richard, Sylvia’s intended, passing as a gentleman’s gentleman) and Tam Williams (as Martin, Sylvia’s brother who helps out with the ruse by pretending to be a rival for her hand) are given rather less to do, but give thoughtful and dignified performances. Keir Charles’ swaggeringly lascivious high-energy performance almost steals the show as a leering and rose-bedecked Russell Brandian dandy who exploits his master’s subterfuge to seduce what he believes to be the lady of the house, only to find himself falling properly in love on learning he’s been conned by a ladies maid.
This 90-minute play fairly races along, energetic performances fitting a pacey plot with no waffle but plenty of laughs. The script manages to be both clever and laugh out loud funny, the perfect marriage of witty wordplay and hilarious characters. It is rather light on drama – there is little conflict, what few moments of genuine angst and pain exist are resolved literally with minutes, and no real doubt both couples will clear up their misunderstandings and live happily ever after. But it is not without substance. Befitting the successor to Low Level Panic, this is rather a feminist play. The two female roles (Claire Lams bringing real verve and character to her “impudent little monkey” ladies maid) are strong, smart, outspoken women. The respect and equality shown them by the male characters is wholly refreshing. Sylvia’s father (Pip Donaghy, uniformly excellent) repeatedly emphasises his respect for and desire for her to make her own choices, and while he enjoys having fun tricking her there is never any malice or feeling she is being exploited or pressured. For a light, frothy romantic comedy, Lottery of Love manages to hit quite a few pretty salient (and very modern) points about class and gender: love vs lust, classism, love across the class barrier, and sexual double standards where a woman can be ruined by sex outside of marriage.
A joyous and sweet romp that manages to be intelligent, feminist, and very very funny.