Review – The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May

Review – The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th September 2017

The LieIt doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Truth, translated by Christopher Hampton. It was a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one couple was having an affair with the wife in the other couple, and vice versa. Here we are again at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Lie, translated by Christopher Hampton. It’s a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one…. Oh, I think I’d better stop there.

Samantha BondIt’s true though; this does feel like very familiar territory. Even more so than watching a sequence of Ayckbourns or Pinters, because even if those redoubtable playwrights deal with many recurring themes, at least they place them in different locations and have a variety of character-types. With M. Zeller, we’re again back in a luxury Paris flat, with four characters called Paul, Alice, Michel and Laurence – although to be fair, this time Mr Hanson is playing Paul, not Michel. They can’t actually be the very same characters, because I doubt whether those in The Truth would still be talking together long enough to engage in intrigues as they do in The Lie. I guess M. Zeller just feels he’s on to a winning formula so why waste time changing names and locations?

Alexander HansonPaul and Alice are expecting Michel and Laurence to join them for a dinner party, but Alice is on edge. She was in a taxi driving by the Galeries Lafayette (well not the Galeries Lafayette exactly, but a road to the side) and she saw a man they know kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. There are of course several perfectly innocent explanations for this, but not in the way that Alice says she saw it. As Paul questions her further, he realises the guilty party is closer to home than he thought; but could his best friend really have an affair without Paul knowing about it? And should Alice tell her best friend that she knows her husband is having an affair, or should she tell a lie?

Tony GardnerBoth The Truth and The Lie are actually very similar plays – both written for the same lead actor, so perhaps it’s not surprising – although structurally there’s a very enjoyable difference. In The Truth, the individual scenes were labelled (with just a hint of Brecht) so that you could count down the stages of deception. In The Lie, we just have a one-act play, with no hints from the programme if there are any surprises in store. However, as I am beginning to realise, M. Zeller is most definitely a man of surprises, so let’s just say it isn’t over until it’s over. He must have the most deceitful imagination going, because over the course of ninety minutes he pulls the characters every way but loose through a series of lies and fantasies so that you really don’t know who or what to believe. It’s incredibly clever and inventive, and everything hangs together perfectly at the end, so the audience does get the satisfaction of a full explanation. Oh, and it’s excruciatingly funny.

Alexandra GilbreathOriginally the role of Paul was to be played by James Dreyfus, but he had to pull out at the last minute due to medical reasons. Enter Alexander Hanson like a knight in shining armour rescuing the production from disaster. We saw last Sunday’s preview, at which point Mr Hanson had only been rehearsing for a week, so he still had to have the book with him for some scenes; but to be honest we barely noticed it. Given his lack of rehearsal time, he’s absolutely brilliant. What a trouper! He really conveys the character’s intricate blend of honest outrage and feigned innocence, sometimes looking like butter wouldn’t melt, at others, as guilty as sin. And of course he has immaculate comic delivery, making the most of M. Zeller’s and Mr Hampton’s hilarious script.

Samantha Bond and Tony GardnerSamantha Bond is also superb as Alice; constantly on the lookout for signs of deception, seeking reassurance, and throwing herself whole-heartedly into the grand gesture of locking herself in the bedroom overnight. One can only imagine that the Hanson-Bond household can be a lively place if they ever have an argument. Being a thrusting woman on the business front, Mrs Chrisparkle wants to know why Alice would go to an important presentation in the morning dressed in the same outfit that she was wearing for a dinner party the night before? When she spent the night locked in her own bedroom? You just wouldn’t do that. There’s excellent support from Tony Gardner as the extremely laid-back Michel – you get the feeling nothing would ever faze him; and from Alexandra Gilbreath as the bubbly Laurence, confidently assured of Michel’s devoted fidelity.

Samantha Bond and Alexander HansonIf you saw The Truth, you’ll want to see The Lie as a companion piece. Even if you didn’t, I’d really recommend it as one of those laugh a minute plays where you sometimes watch the stage through your fingers through sheer embarrassment. As with The Truth, this is NOT a play to take your other half if you’ve been playing away from home. It’s on till 18th November and you should go and see it – not a word of a lie.

Alexander Hanson and Tony GardnerP. S. Next year at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Alexander Hanson in The Half-Truth; a one-act play by Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton, where Paul and Michel have a homosexual affair but it’s fine because unknown to them so do Alice and Laurence. No, I made that up. Or did I…?