Finborough Theatre, London – until 25 September 2018
The Victorian playwright J.P Wooler lived and died a bachelor. This fact, we can say without a shred of biographical evidence, may have informed his wry and objective ridicule of the period’s courtship rituals and power relations between the sexes. His trilogy of “comediettas”, exhumed, crinolines, waistcoats, sideburns et al, and given exuberant life at the Finborough Theatre by a period-channelling company, with the requisite twinkles and absurdity, are shrewd, if slight, comedies of manners and error. They make fools of arrogant men and their powers of patronage, while imbuing the women with a mental agility and mischievousness belying their oft-passive roles in a phallocentric game of seduction and pacification.
The ordering of the three plays isn’t chronological but arranged this way, provides something of an arc for the dead playwright and his ideas about ruling class propagation and values. A Winning Hazard is a winning farce, full of improbable misunderstanding and horse spooking, in which Wooler, with tongue firmly in cheek, sends up the material imperative behind marriage and the lengths people will stoop to fit the cookie cutter archetypes demanded of both sexes. It’s an appropriate appetiser, introducing the themes that will be excavated further in the next two stories.
Allow Me to Apologise is a progression, in which old theatrical standards like genderbending, disguise, and misunderstanding, are used to critique male bluster and entitlement. Not for nothing does Miss Seymour prefer the tenderness and reserve of the cross-dressing Miss Fairlove to her bepenised competition. This is gender criticism, 150 years young.
Orange Blossoms, the last of the plays, introduces us to an outrageous proxy for and parody of the playwright himself – a man so resistant to the idea of marriage that he’d rather be hung than wed. It’s the strongest of the three, thanks to a wild and wide-eyed performance from Max Marcq – Wooler writing for Hugh Laurie a century before his birth – that closes with the reassuring but surely proven assertion that a respectful and canny partnership of equals is the only model that doesn’t feel like a joke. Perhaps it took a man at one remove from marriage and money to see it.
This is a boisterous, mannered evening that will appeal to Victorian aficionados and fans of comedy sharing Wooler’s DNA – traces visible in the absurdist plots of Blackadder and the mania of Fawlty Towers – traditions the late wordsmith would have recognised, just as he namechecks his own inspiration – obscure Elizabethan dramatists like William Shakespeare.
The Finborough’s ambition in reviving these forgotten works is part of the theatre’s great appeal but here, it’s just possible their eyes are bigger than their stomach. It’s such a small venue, and these are such large and kinetic farces, that one wonders if the limited stage is big enough. Those in the front row, prepare to be swept by dresses and adjust to players projecting for a venue thrice the size. Mind you, faint heart never won fair lady, so a timid rendering of Wooler’s triptych just wouldn’t do.