Lyric Hammersmith, London – until 14 May 2022
Because simultaneously having a starry revival of your early play selling out nightly in the West End (Cock featuring Jonathan Bailey) and a barnstorming neo-Shakespearean Trump fantasia wowing them at the Old Vic (The 47th) apparently isn’t enough, Mike Bartlett now gives us a contemporary riff on Restoration Comedy. And it’s quite delicious.
We knew he was brilliant but with this third piece to come to a major London venue in 2022, he displays yet another facet to his virtuosity while staking a claim to be as prolific as Alan Ayckbourn or Noël Coward at the height of their popularity.
This dazzling modern-day Restoration-style romp, set in a heightened but appallingly recognisable London obsessed with image and status, proves, in Rachel O’Riordan’s crackerjack production, to be a triumphant fusion of style AND substance, each of those attributes taking it in turns to seize the upper hand. Restoration Comedy came about when theatres reopened in the 1600s following an eighteen-year shutdown by the Puritans, so it feels like an appropriate genre for Bartlett to remint as theatres now come back to life after being shut down by the pandemic.
Like Vanbrugh, Wycherley and Etherege before him, Bartlett holds a satirical, sometimes grotesque mirror up to the fashions and fads of the time he lives in. Scandaltown encompasses hedonism, virtue signalling, and the power of social media, but all couched in elegant, erudite language suddenly shot through with moments of almost breathtaking crudity. It’s often blissfully funny and, just occasionally, a little bit troubling.
The plot is as convoluted as one might expect from historical examples of the genre -social climbing, mistaken identity, thwarted love, shameful pasts, it’s all here- but with a refreshing, frequently delightful spin as pounding dance beats sit alongside high comedy. The shallowness of fashionable urban living, the venality of the Tories and the glorification of financial gain over almost everything else are sent up rotten but the laughter oftentimes threatens to turn bitter. Act one explodes like a firecracker and is followed by a slightly anti-climactic second half: the granular writing is still fine but the requirement to neatly tie up all the disparate plot strands means that a certain ennui kicks in. Act one is tight, where act two feels baggy.
If, on press night, some of the younger cast members weren’t fully on top of the heightened style of delivery, that will undoubtedly come as the run progresses, and even now they’re buoyed up by the effervescence of O’Riordan’s staging which so perfectly captures the energy and attitude of the milieu. Good Teeth’s set design isn’t particularly attractive but succeeds in marrying together the painted flats and drops of historical theatre with a bit of modernist flashy, while Kinnetia Isidore’s costumes are imaginative and gorgeous.
As estranged, contrasting siblings Phoebe and Jack Virtue, she high of mind and low of tolerance, he pretty much the other way round, Cecilia Appiah and Matthew Broome are entrancing. Richard Goulding is uproariously funny as Matt Eton (“the Secretary of State for Procurement”), a bisexual Tory turncoat forever looking for cheap thrills to spice up his tediously privileged existence. Thomas Josling does lovely work as an honourable innocent whose first exposure to high society goes in a very different direction from what he’d expected.
Best of all, there’s a thrilling Rachael Stirling as the gloriously monikered Lady Susan Climber, a sexually voracious diva in designer togs, desperate to stay relevant but unable to resist the lure of hard cash or indeed hard young male flesh. Seldom has Stirling looked or sounded quite so uncannily like her mother (the late, great Dame Diana Rigg) as she does here, but this is an authentic star performance all of her own. She’s screamingly camp but never at the ultimate expense of dramatic truth, and helplessly, irresistibly funny. Her merciless sniping at Henry Everett’s comically pitiful manservant (a direct descendant of One Man Two Guvnor’s ancient waiter Alfie, who was in turn a stock commedia dell’arte figure) is a source of utter, nasty joy, and her horrified/jubilant realisation that she has just mistakenly slept with a man decades her junior rather than the sweaty Tory power player she was prepared to put up with, is one of the most marvellous things on any current London stage.
Like it’s characters, Scandaltown is flawed but mainly fabulous. Also like most of them, it’s deeply endearing, often rapturously amusing, and a lot of fun to spend the night with.
‘Flawed but mainly fabulous & deeply endearing’: @AlunJohnHood has ‘a lot of fun’ spending the night with Mike Bartlett’s modern Restoration comedy #Scandaltown at@LyricHammer. ★★★★ #LondonTheatre #theatrereviews
‘A disappointingly toothless & rather dreary non-satire’: @AleksSierz on prolific Mike Bartlett’s new Restoration comedy #Scandaltown, running at London’s @LyricHammer til 14 May. #newwriting #theatrereviews