Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 22 January 2016
FRILLS AND FLIRTATIONS, TRICKS AND TRADUCINGS…
There’s a bustle of backstage larking before the curtain, cast dashing around in shirtsleeves, manoeuvring a hamper , getting stuck in ropes and tripping over a life-size model crocodile. So get in your seat early. Especially if you want a random hug from Mr Scandal (Robert Cavanah) or to be picked on to represent Queen Anne with a polystyrene crown from the gift shop plonked on your head (the Queen, it seems, saw Congreve’s play on her 32nd birthday, in 1697).
Director Selina Cadell notes joyfully in the programme that Restoration Comedy was always complicit: actors and audience alike letting it be known that it was all “play’ and the relationship was open: not until 1912 did the idea of the “fourth wall” get traction. So throughout this riotous, consistently entertaining evening characters make eye contact, confide, point, and require the front row to look after their jackets or hats. Not (be reassured) embarrassingly. There is even, briefly a tatty songsheet lowered from the gallery in the hope we will join a sailorly chorus.
I will not attempt to lay out the plot, how the spendthrift layabout Valentine wins his Angelica, whose ruse foils Sir Sampson Legend’s attempt to disinherit him, or why the straying wife of Foresight the duff astrologer is in cahoots with the equally loose-bloomered Mrs Frail to stop the favoured sailor son Ben marrying Miss Prue. It’ll all come clear in a firecracker onslaught of sharp lines, witticisms, flights of fancy and splendid insults. “Dirty Dowdy!’ “Stinking tar-barrel!” “Crocodile!” “FIsh – impudent tarpaulin!”. Not to mention double-entendres of magnificent clarity – one discussion about whether a woman went “to World’s End” takes us way beyond Chelsea. Enlightening that it was deemed suitable for Queen Anne, when you consider how strictly Royal Variety Performance artists are warned off innuendo today.
The joy of it, credit to both Congreve and Cadell, is that for the whole of the first half never five minutes passes without some new, distinct and preposterous character arriving. As costume designer Rosalind Ebbutt has opted for period silhouettes but “modern hair” rather than alienating periwigs, they are both appropriate and cartoonishly familiar today. We meet Valentine – Tom Turner as a languidly poudré rake lounging in his rooms in peacock blue and being berated about late payment by his valet (nobody in this play has any humble respect for anyone else, which is bracing and very Congreve). Soon Cavanah’s dark, sarcastic Scandal joins VAlentine, then – leaping over the chaise-longue in a Tintin quiff and a plump fluster of pink bows and orange tags – we have Jonathan Broadbent, who was so enchantingly touching in My Night With Reg. Soon there is the vain, tyrannical, affronted father, Nicholas le Prevost (an actor so accomplished that he can growl out Georgette Heyerish lines like “faith ’n troth she’s devilish handsome!” as if it came naturally). There’s the earnest fool Michael Thomas as Foresight with his astrolabe and stuffed croc; Hermione Gulliford upmarketly tarty as his wife, Zoe Waites even more so as Mrs Frail, and at last the seafaring Ben, very ahaaarr-Jim-lad, attempting vainly to woo the mummerzet -accented and pink-haired loutess, Miss Prue (Jenny Rainsford, gloriously funny).
In a riot of colour and choler, furbelows and flirtation, tricks and traducings, with a surreal Benny-Hill dash-through, two sweetly mournful songs and a rude shanty, it scrambles rumbustiously to its end. The Restoration had years of dreary Puritanism to get over. In the age of political correctness its spirit returns to comfort us.
box office 0844 800 1110 rsc.org.uk to 22 Jan