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 – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Savoy Theatre, 6th September 2014

Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsI hummed and hahhed about booking this show because, deep down, gentle reader, I’m a little fed up of the trend to reinvent successful films as stage shows. The story’s already been told in one format – does it really need to be in another? I know there have been loads of great musicals as a result, but I’d really like to see something a bit more original. So at first I ignored it; then ATG tickets rang me up with an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I changed my mind. Yes, the decision to go was price-based. Still, the show sounded funny, it’s always a pleasure to return to the Savoy Theatre; and I’ve always got a lot of time for Robert Lindsay on stage.

Well, I’m very glad that my inflexibility didn’t get the better of me, because Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an absolute whale of a time at this show. We had seen the film before – but it had been some time ago and we’d both forgotten it. Suffice to say, we knew that we enjoyed it, but not why. I remembered it contained a couple of dirty rotten scoundrels, but that’s no great achievement when the clue is in the title. So the plot unfolded to us as a new story, which was very satisfying as it has a delicious twist at the end that came as a complete surprise.

Robert LindsayWithout giving too much away, it’s about rogue serial swindler Lawrence Jameson, who spends his summers in a fashionable French resort, conning rich ladies out of their considerable fortunes. He’s assisted in this by his accomplice, Andre, an Inspector in the local police force. But their happy little business becomes at risk when another chancer arrives on the scene, the American small time crook Freddy, who’s in the same line of work and who threatens to blow the gaff on Lawrence’s little game. To preserve his way of life, Lawrence agrees to teach Freddy the finer points of scoundreldom; and thus they end up working together, challenging each other to swindle the most money out of the next lot of victims. Into their life steps heiress Christine Colgate, and the game is on.

I’d forgotten how good Robert Lindsay is. We last saw him a few years ago at the Old Vic in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, where he was great; but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the kind of show where he really excels – a proper old-fashioned musical, with a bit of a song-and-dance, some showmanship, and some stagey razzmatazz. I first saw him in the original cast of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi in 1985 and was astounded at his ability. In fact, I think his only rival for the title of Best Charisma on Stage in a Musical is Michael Crawford. He’s one of those actors you just can’t stop watching. Every little gesture, every look, every aside, is filled with meaning – whether it be revealing something about the character, or letting you into a moment of emotion, or being just downright hilarious. The role of Lawrence is just perfect for him, allowing him to preen, pose and vain it up like a peacock, whilst being brought down to earth with regular thumps every time things don’t go his way.

Rufus HoundMuch of the fun comes from how he so nearly (but not quite) breaks the fourth wall on so many occasions, such as his look of incredulity directly at the audience when we applaud Rufus Hound for some comic business, or, after the wonderful and surreal Oklahoma number, when he offers us a silent throwaway “wtf?” You come away from the show feeling that his performance has been one long tongue-in-cheek in-joke, and all the funnier for it. Actually the script is full of quirks that teeter on the edge of normal stagecraft, teasing us with breaking the usual rules of theatre; like when Act Two begins in the same place that Act One ended, and they make fun of the fact they’re performing the same scene twice. Overall Mr L gives us a wonderful comic performance, let alone his still being light on his feet at 64 (apparently), and vocally still really strong. A true star of the stage. He is of course matched with a fantastic performance from Rufus Hound; it’s the first time we’ve seen him live and I was really impressed at his accomplished stage presence. Relishing every opportunity to look as stupid as possible, as when he is playing out the role of the brother from hell Ruprecht, or being ferociously whipped and having to mask the pain, he gives an incredibly active and physical performance, and together with Mr L they create a perfect comic partnership.

Samantha BondSupporting is a wonderfully funny and surprisingly tender performance by Samantha Bond on top form, as the lovelorn Muriel, always wanting to give Lawrence (masquerading as the Prince of some threatened Ruritanian province) a little more money to help his country’s fight for survival. She’s got great comic timing, and acts out a charming love story that develops with Andre; and I loved the moment when she hangs on to the disappearing balcony rail in another of those quirky stagecraft scenes. In the performance we saw, two members of the cast were indisposed so their understudies were called on, and, my word, did they give good accounts of themselves. Darren Bennett played Andre with wit and panache, and Alice Fearn was a beautiful, seemingly kind-hearted Christine Colgate, with a super stage presence and a fantastic voice. We were also really impressed with the statuesque Lizzy Connolly, who played the horrendous Jolene with enormous verve and a great sense of fun. The sets look opulent, and really reflect that sunny Riviera feeling, as do the costumes; and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is funny and engaging, bringing out the best in the talented ensemble dancers. The songs are catchy and amusing, and the book is extremely funny – all in all, it’s something of a dream combination.

Robert Lindsay and Rufus HoundAn unmitigated joy – were it not for one really unfortunate blip. I had read reports earlier in the run that the sound system is not up to the job. We had presumed that, months on, all that would have been rectified by now, but no. What I suspect are really witty lyrics in most of the big numbers were absolutely lost by the imbalance of orchestra versus voice. You catch just a percentage of the words, by dint of heavy concentration and a reliance on lip-reading. You know the kind of thing – you catch significant rhyming words like, say, “map” and “crap” and your brain tells you “that’s a really funny lyric that links map and crap, I’m sure if I heard it in its entirety it would be incredibly witty”. You hear enough to keep abreast of plot development, but not enough to savour every moment. It’s a real shame; and we were only four rows from the front in Row C. I would imagine that at the back you would have been completely lost in those big set pieces. Disgraceful really, considering the prices of the seats. Fortunately the show is just so good that you forgive it.

A perfect light-hearted entertainment, deftly performed and very funny indeed. Despite the sound issues, I’d still recommend it without hesitation!