Southwark Playhouse, London – until 21 April 2018
I know. You trot along to the theatre expecting something like a Restoration comedy and you come across this – well-honed naked men who have spent their rehearsal time in the gym, fellatio under the table, masturbation and drug-taking. Gosh, it’s not how I remember William Wycherley’s The Country Wife.
But Morphic Grafitti’s exceptionally well-dressed production, with the action moved up a few centuries to the Jazz Age, is a riot. Yes, it’s an eye-opener, but director Luke Fredericks has created a production that has oodles of glamour and sparkles in every scene.
Its vibrant cast, led by Eddie Eyre, is outrageously good, capturing both the rakish excesses of Wycherley’s 17th century and the devil-may-care attitudes of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby crowd from the Roaring Twenties. The fizzing dialogue could be Wildean or Wodehouse. Never has the word ‘pshaw’ been so frequently used to express contempt, surprise or disgust, by a group of Bright Young Things voraciously pursuing sex and satisfaction.
Eyre plays Jack-the-Lad Harry Horner who has had it put around London society that he has unfortunately been castrated. The upshot of this is that well-bred gentlemen are happy to entrust their wives and daughters to him in the belief that he is incapable of adultery. While Harry sows his wild oats, a country wife, the naive and unschooled Margery Pinchwife (a super Nancy Sullivan) is brought to town and kept under lock and key by her much older and jealous husband.
Her sister, the worldly wise and very glamorous, Alithea (Siubhan Harrison) is engaged to marry a fop called Sparkish but, instead, falls in love with his friend, the romantic Frank.
Keeping up? This merry-go-round of affairs, illicit liaisons, fumblings at the Savoy Grill, and hows-your-father with the servants, makes your head spin.
Some of the characters – Richard Clews’s cuckolded Pinchwife in particular – tie themselves up in knots trying to save the honour of their loved ones.
Leo Staar’s lovesick Frank moons about, contriving to wrest the lovely Alithea from the sexually dubious Sparkish (Daniel Cane wonderfully effete); the randy Horner dispenses his sexual favours with wild abandon, a lot of alcohol is drunk and cocaine sniffed.
The Country Wife is gloriously excessive. It does sag a bit towards the end, and could lose about 20 minutes, but, if you’re going to reinvent Restoration Comedy, well, you couldn’t do better.
The costumes are some of the best I’ve seen off-West End.
Smaller production companies don’t usually have much of a budget for wardrobe but the men are proper peacocks, turned out in some very dapper suits, while the women, particularly Harrison’s Alithea, exude 1920s allure.
Eyre, a wolfish grin and come hither personality, is perfectly cast as the lecherous Horner who almost comes undone while trussed up for a threesome (yes, it’s that side of bawdy).
He spends a good deal of time with his shirt off as a roué about town but it becomes clear that although the men appear to be misogonysts all, it is the women who are actually in control.
They may have had to hide their feelings and desires back in 1675 but the ladies, no matter how well bred, were more devious than they were ever given credit for.
Inbetween scenes the cast Black Bottom, Charleston and Flapper on to slickly change set accompanied by bursts of music which isn’t entirely vintage but fits the buoyant, party, mood perfectly.
Spirited, effervescent and fun, The Country Wife, offers a night of unbridled entertainment – and not a periwig or frock-coat in sight.