The Double Dealer
Orange Tree Theatre, 7th January 2019
Now everyone know’s that Restoration comedy is a tricky customer. What with the humour built on misogyny, that’s if it is funny at all. The satire of a social class few of us recognise. Texts are so thick, built on repartee, wordplay, punning and double entendre. Plots and sub-plots are labyrinthine. Intrigues, trysts, disguise, mistaken identity, off stage shenanigans, eavesdropping, knob gags, duplicity, comeuppances. Characters are stock: rakes, roues, ingenues, cuckolds, randy older women, buffoons. The debt to French and Spanish contemporaries, Jacobean classics, commedia dell’arte and the Roman foundations of Plautus and chums, is obvious even if it is firmly of its time.
I’ve swerved a few in my time, including recently the Donmar Way of the World, which sounded a bit too full-on. There was a Simon Godwin Beaux Stratagem at the NT a few years ago which had its moments and the “Bright Young Things” Country Wife last year from Morphic Graffiti was diverting in parts but I am still waiting to be shown the “real thing”. Director Selina Cadell, who is a veteran of the Restoration, (you know what I mean), as both actor and, increasingly, director, (Love for Love at the RSC, Way of the World at Theatre Royal, Northampton, The Rivals at the Arcola, in addition to a Stravinsky Rake’s Progress at Wilton’s), offers valuable insight in the programme. To make the comedy work actors need to trust the text and stop their natural, modern tendency to interpret and emote.
I can see the sense of that and also the idea that we the audience shouldn’t worry too much about trying to unravel the plot. To that end, in this Double Dealer, William Congreve’s 1694 less successful follow up to his hit debut The Old Bachelor, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson have offered up a short prologue telling us to do exactly that. So, with that in mind, I settled in, though, given the string of less than enthusiastic reviews, expectations were low.
So I was more than a little surprised when I found myself starting to enjoy the proceedings. Not to the point of being converted to the Restoration cause but certainly enough to justify 4*, admittedly on the Tourist’s extremely flawed, subjective and overly generous ranking system. (I reason that all involved have gone to the effort so it is only reasonable for me to be generous in my appreciation. And the hard laws of cognitive dissonance mean I am hardly likely to admit I ballsed up by booking to see something in the first place).
This is not to say that the plot isn’t convoluted. Earnest young Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt), heir and nephew to Lord Touchwood (Jonathan Coy) can’t wait to marry Cynthia (Zoe Waiter) who is the daughter by a former wife of Sir Paul Plyant (Simon Chandler). Sir Paul is also the brother of Lady Touchwood (also Zoe Waites) who just happens to have the hots for young Mellefont. Lady T, rejected by said Mellefont, gets the hump and resolves to ruin his reputation. She recruits the rakish Maskwell (Edward MacLiam), the Double Dealer of the title, and Lady T’s former lover, into her plot. As it happens the villain Maskwell is actually in love with the virtuous Cynthia. So Maskwell attempts to persuade Sir Paul P that his missus, the randy Lady P (Jenny Rainsford), is getting it on with Mellefont, and Lord T that Mellefont also has designs on his wife. Into this fray are plunged Mellefont’s mate Careless (Dharmesh Patel), Lord Froth (Paul Reid) and his pretentious wife Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely) who responds to the advances of coxcomb Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent), who also plays a chaplain as the trysts pile up and the plots unravel.
Easy really. Seriously though, a quick scan of Wiki, as you might prior to a Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson play, a shifty glance at your programme as the various punters run on and off in the first few minutes, and it becomes pretty easy to follow. So I am not sure that constitutes a fair criticism. The constant entrances and exits do get a little repetitive but so it can in Shakespeare history plays and there ain’t a lot of options space-wise at the OT, that is normally one of its joys. The reasons for the doubling of Lady Touchwood and Cynthia remain a mystery but Zoe Waites offers more than sufficient distinction between the two, in some ways rather to the detriment of her colourless Cynthia. And, when we get to the scene where Cynthia eavesdrops on Lady T’s intrigues, we witness the rather daft sight of her rolling on her side to signify who is speaking. Still at least she didn’t have one of those split down the middle costumes on.
Lloyd Everett gives more definition to Mellefont but the the star turn by a country mile is Jenny Rainsford’s Lady Plyant, who is hilarious, both in the delivery of her lines and her movement. Hannah Stokely also gets real laughs out of Lady Froth and Edward MacLiam gradually, though not entirely, fleshes Maskwell out beyond the pantomime. The rest of the cast is solid if not always spectacular. As an aside I think this might have been my first full house in terms of the ten strong cast. All seen in the last couple of years in other productions. Madeleine Girling’s set did the job as did Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume’s and Vince Herbert’s lighting though I couldn’t escape the feeling, (very rare at the OT where less is normally defiantly more), that more space and more money would have helped.
BUT what I can say is that this was a production which persuaded me that Restoration Comedy can be not just something I, (and I suspect most audiences), should enjoy, but something that I could enjoy, and in fact something that I would enjoy. If there were an entire cast operating at the same level as, say, Jenny Rainsford here, so that every line, every exchange, every character trait, every situation, registered then it could be very bright and very witty. If this were overlaid with more expansive visual cues, the entertainment could be further enhanced. Not to the exclusion of the text but in support thereof. And if the differences between the characters are fully defined by movement, costume and through variations in the rhythm of dialogue and action then the plot should be less of a hurdle.
Even the most perfect production might have its work cut out to bring relevancy to the social satire or to contemporise the sexual politics. Congreve’s play dates from the period of the second wave of Restoration comedy from 1690 through the turn of the C18 which broadened out the interaction between social classes beyond the purely aristocratic subjects of the original craze from 1660 to 1680. Even so it is still essentially a bunch of toffs running around stunting innuendos the Carry On script writers might have rejected. Easy to see why the stuffy Victorians took umbrage and the plays fell out of fashion.
This is the first production of the Double Dealer in London for a few decades. It’s not perfect. The tension between the pantomimic and the dramatic is never really resolved. There is precious little weight to the characters. The space constrains, even though the play is nominally set in the “gallery” of Lord T’s house over the three hours of the (unabridged) play. Yet, despite this, the Tourist sniggered a fair bit and emerged in quite a perky mood. Which is not always the case post theatricals. And, armed with a greater understanding of the genre, hoping, one day, to chalk up a 5* Restoration comedy.