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 – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson