Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 14 June 2018
A pre-curtain ensemble of one harpsichord and a quartet of periwigged lady saxophonists, playing Mozart with a touch of oompah, is always a good sign. The RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran has a kindly sense of balance, so the dourly modern, blokey, bleak and inevitably joyless Macbeth just down the corridor is offset by this merry bit of Restoration fluff and female scorn, by the largely forgotten 17the century writer Mary Pix. Good move, Mr D. Bring on the ridiculous crinolines, insane wigs, good-natured romantic cynicism, absurd fights and outrageous social caricature. Add a pair of huge hairy lurchers lunging for a sniff of the front row (British audiences always smell faintly of dog-biscuits). And there you are. Fun.
Pix’s play is intensely and typically complicated: in brief, it centres on the ambition of Mrs Rich, a banker’s widow, played with endearing gusto by Sophie Stanton as a prototype Hyacinth Bucket with a dash of Mrs Slocombe. She is desperate to be one of The Quality, having in the opening scene arrived with her crinoline askew after being “disrespected in the open street” by a passing duchess, even though “I spoke with the mien and tone proportionable to my équipage”.
Her staid grey brother-in-law (Michael Simkins keeping a nobly straight face) entreats her not to make a fool of herself , while she dreams of netting a title – the absurdly fey, pink-pantalooned and curlicued Sir John – and gets cheated at cards by her posher friends. Notably Lady Trickwell: Sandy Foster, who manages to distort her fine features throughout into a constant sourly discontented snoot, and in the second act hurls herself into some unexpected sword-fighting in ballooning underdrawers.
Plot and subplot intertwine: the maid Betty conspires with Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger) in a series of ill-advised tests of virtue on a disinherited yet virtuous lad whose elder brother is a rumbustious squire from Yorkshire, hallooing and singing rude hunting songs with two hairy dogs and an assistant, artfully gender-swopped to be Amanda Hadingue in a tweed skirt and raucous she-baritone. Tangles of deceit and misapprehensions are enhanced by background jokes you might just miss (I love the dust cloud in Mrs Fidget’s flophouse, and the squire drinking out of his saucer).
What director Jo Davies has done, pacing it up , camping along and adding new music-hall style songs by Grant Olding, is to create a perfect showcase for a dozen wonderful stage comediennes: it is a masterclass for fearlessly funny women. The men, a minority for once, are pretty wonderful too , notably Leo Wringer as the appalling squire and Solomon Israel as his brother, both plunging joyfully into the necessary self-parody. Indeed Israel is given, by the wicked pen of Ms Pix, an opportunity to send up every soliloquizing, self-pitying hero of Jacobean tragedy. And a fascinating aspect of the play is how much at home this woman writer , wife of a merchant in the 1690s, was in mocking not only theatre itself but every layer of society: parvenue socialites, starchy bankers, indigent aristocracy, cheating gamesters, hunting gentry, rooming-house landladies . She was up for a lark, was Mary Pix. She’d have no truck with this new idea that women are too sweet and banter-phobic to go on Have I Got News…