Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.

The CompanySoutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – King Lear, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2016

King LearTime to add another King Lear to the collection. For this Made in Northampton production, which will tour to nine more theatres between now and July, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lady Lichfield, paying us a visit in a never-ending quest for culture and alcohol. She’d never seen King Lear on stage before, poor love. In previous years we’ve seen stage productions with McKellen (majestic), Postlethwaite (troubled) and Jacobi (petulant), all brilliant in their own way. And Mrs C in particular can’t forget the TV adaptation with Olivier as Lear, which had her blubbing uncontrollably when Cordelia died. I think she had hoped for the earlier adaptation where Cordelia marries Edgar and they all live happily ever after.

Michael PenningtonTo add to that pantheon of greats, we can now include Michael Pennington, whom I must confess I had never seen before. His is a fantastic Lear, extremely believable as both the self-centred and quick to ire king, and as the devastated, broken man on the blasted heath. Delightful to watch and listen to throughout, with his superbly pitched diction, his gently understated quirky visual expressions, and his gradual decline into madness. He answers the perennial question of Is Lear Really Mad with an utterly honest, wide-eyed stare of dementia that certainly convinced me. Every inch a great performance.

Who loves me bestSome Shakespeare productions can be amazingly inventive; some grow their strength from their essential traditionalism. You don’t get much in the way of traditional Shakespeare nowadays – it’s almost seen as a confession of unoriginality if you don’t place it in an anachronistic time-setting or have all the cast members the same sex. Max Webster’s production is pretty much in the classically traditional line; there is a nod to the 1920s/30s in the costumes, and Regan’s child sports a rather smart perambulator, but apart from that it is the timeless story of the powerful but vain old man who gives all to his daughters and gets less than nothing in return. It’s a good, solid production that tells its story with great clarity, pared back so that no gimmicks get in the way, although with a couple of surprising twists in a few of the scenes to keep you on your toes. However, I must say that I thought the use of music, when I noticed it, was rather heavy-handed; there’s a very Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment to the big fight between Edgar and Edmund which completely destroyed its sense of tension. In any event, the fight itself was choreographed with a remarkable lack of realism; I briefly thought we’d been transported to a scene between Aladdin and Abanazar.

Joshua Elliott and Michael PenningtonHowever, what you come away with is a satisfactorily rewarding production, with some very fine performances, and interesting, thought-provoking interpretations of some of the roles. For me, apart from Mr Pennington, the best performance of the night was from Joshua Elliott as the Fool. Primarily, he achieved the nigh-on impossibility of making the Fool funny. He made you laugh, yet still delivered his blistering observations on Lear that hit the spot with all the precision of a Tomahawk missile; frequently all in the same sentence. Rarely have I heard the lines such as all thy other titles thou hast given away told with such simple honesty. And, with some cunning direction, the “joint-stool” line worked perfectly.

Scott KarimThat fine actor Pip Donaghy makes a perfect Gloucester, warmly trusting Edmund, heartily supporting the King, and allowing himself to be duped because of his own open nature. Gloucester features in two of the most challenging moments of the play, and I find myself looking forward to them just to see how they’ll deal with them. The first is where Cornwall blinds him – challenging due to its goriness (and this production doesn’t disappoint) – and the second is where he attempts to throw himself off a cliff that isn’t there; a truly pathetic moment (in the correct sense of the word). Again, that scene was beautifully portrayed, also thanks to the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of Edgar by Gavin Fowler.

Adrian IrvineCatherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan appear as sisters in unctuous sycophancy as they outdo each other in their hideous praise for their father, which of course all turns to dust once they have achieved power. They both absolutely look the part of butter-wouldn’t-melt, which adds to the shock of their true nature, with Miss Scott in particular resembling the evil twin of Lady Edith from Downton Abbey. Tom McGovern’s Kent is the mildest and, dare I say it, blandest of courtiers, but absolutely comes to life when pretending to be the sparky little Caius, horrendously chipper in his support for Lear. Among the more minor characters, I thought Daniel O’Keefe was excellent as the serviceable villain Oswald, hiding tight-lipped behind his status as Goneril’s steward, but physically cowardly when real life intercedes. There is a gasp moment when you really think Regan is going to seek to reward Oswald for information in a manner not entirely becoming a lady; but wet fish that he is, he doesn’t go there. Very nicely done.

Catherine BaileyScott Karim gives us a very stylish portrayal of Edmund. I normally think of Edmund as full of bluster and barely disguised anger. However, this Edmund is much more introverted; quiet, sly, taking the audience into his confidence with subtle glee. He is a Uriah Heep of an Edmund, creating slippery plans for his own personal wealth and success, and with no thought to the consequence to his high-living brother or generous father. At first I was unsure of this portrayal, but I quickly saw how extremely well it works.

Tom McGovernI am, however, less certain of the interpretation of Cordelia, by Beth Cooke. I always associate the character with purity – being the youngest, unmarried, daughter – and honesty, as she refuses to lie to her father about how much she loves him. This portrayal certainly reflects Cordelia’s honesty, as she adamantly refuses to back down to Lear’s hectoring behaviour. But purity? When, disinherited, she meets her two suitors, Burgundy and France, she’s all over Burgundy like a rash. That’s not the classic Cordelia I remember. Also, she opens the play by coming on stage and firing her shotgun at us. This appears to be a Cordelia with attitude. However, her mannered speech delivery remains fairly constant throughout the play – speaking with a slow, almost ponderous rhythm that doesn’t allow for much variety of tone or expression. She may have attitude, but she also seems to be resigned to a life of misery from the very start. I must confess, it didn’t quite work for me.

But the evening definitely belongs to Mr Pennington, who brings an accessibility and modernity to the role that makes you realise that any of your elderly relatives could easily become a Lear if the wind was in the wrong direction. A very enjoyable and rewarding evening.

P.S. Mrs C didn’t cry.