The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree review ****

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.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/04/27/the-country-wife-at-southwark-playhouse-review/

The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse review ***

william_wycherley_by_sir_peter_lely

The Country Wife

Southwark Playhouse, 17th April 2018

I haven’t seen that many Restoration comedies. In fact if I take the list of notable examples of the genre offered up by Wiki I see it is a grand total of one, in the form of the NT’s Beaux Stratagem from 2015, directed by the versatile Simon Godwin. It was OK but I can’t say I was bowled over. Still anyone with the Tourist’s theatrical pretensions needs to master the form so he leapt at the chance to see this production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife courtesy of Morphic Graffiti. Especially at the bargain basement price of a tenner. There is no cheaper, or often, better way to see theatre in London than through Southwark Playhouse’s Pay As You Go offer. All Londoners should be compulsorily enrolled for their own cultural good.

Luke Fredericks and Stewart Charlesworth are the brains behind Morphic Graffiti which they set up in 2012. I see that the majority of their well received work to date has been musicals, including a version of the problematic Rodgers and Hammerstein work Carousel at the Arcola. That would explain why this Country Wife has some absolutely marvellous song and dance routines between scenes. The entire cast dances its way through the intricate set changes to a backdrop of abridged jazz-swing versions of pop “classics”. The choreography is in keeping with the 1920s “Bright Young Things” setting, for that is the period Messrs Fredericks and Charlesworth have alighted on to shed new light on Wycherley’s original written in 1675. The idea is that the privileged Bohemians of 1920s London, with their drink and drug excesses, their music and fancy dress parties and their sexual licentiousness, had a lot in common with their, probably, frock and wig wearing ancestors in Charles II’s time. Apparently Charly 2 was notoriously potty-mouthed.

The Restoration saw  a reaction against the puritanism of the Protectorate. The theatre was restored, and frou-frou, baroque-y, Frenchiness was all the rage. Moliere, albeit hyped up, was the inspiration for the Restoration playwrights who satirised, albeit lovingly, etiquette, manners, class and sex. The Country Wife was at the more explicit end of the spectrum with its knob and fanny double entendres and it was banned from performance from 1753, as those miserable Georgians and Tories gained ascendance, until 1924.

Which circles back to the backdrop here. I can see that some of the characters here, the foppish dandy Sparkish, the roue Harry Horner, the horny cougar Lady Fidget and the eponymous country wife looking to widen her horizons as it were, Margery Pinchwife, might fit the Bright Young Things template. In contrast the cuckolds, Pinchwife and Sir Jasper Fidget are the older generation against which the young’uns rebel. But surely the Restoration, and these comedies which prick it, was a time a time of deception and hypocrisy. The look may have been flamboyant but there were presumably social mores which governed public behaviour, even if, in private, anything was up for grabs. In contrast those BYT’s revelled in their visible outrageousness and were flagrant self publicists, Made in Chelsea types but obviously not so dumb as fat Spence, toddler Jamie and Bonky. In short if Harry got horny in the 1920’s in this company, surely he would need no elaborate ruse to get his leg over.

I fear I maybe overthinking this but my point is I am not entirely sure the concept stacked up even if the look, especially Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costumes, movement, Heather Douglas, and sound, Neil Rigg, was appealing. Apparently Luke Fredericks took a few liberties with the text and cut his dramatis personae, I wouldn’t know, but it didn’t do any damage to the plot as far as I could make out. Mind you, even with plays I know well, I will always get familiar with the outline of the plot in advance. The SO thinks this is mad but I reckon if you have a rough idea of what is going on there is more joy to be had from performances, characters, insights, messages, spectacle and the like. And I am notoriously slow on the uptake.

In essence The Country Wife is a bunch of people looking for a shag, with randy Harry Horner, played rather too straight by Eddie Eyre, pretending he is impotent so he can get close to the ladies without arousing suspicion, Pinchwife’s young and “inexperienced” new, yokel wife Margery (a winning Nancy Sullivan) embracing all the City has to offer, and Harry’s droll chum Frank Harcourt (Leo Starr) nabbing the lovely Alithea (Siubhan Harrison) from under the nose of the camp chump Sparkish (Daniel Cane who sets out to, and succeeds, rather too obviously, in stealing the show). Mabel Clements caught the eye doubling up as knowing servant Lucy and vivacious Dainty Fidget, sister in law of Lady F, played by Sarah Lam who seemed to me to most embrace the tenor of the text. Richard Clews as the preposterously misogynistic Pinchwife, Sam Graham as Sir Jasper F and Joshua Hill as Harry’s other wing-man, Dorilant, completed the cast.

Now these plays are famous in part for offering the first proper meaty parts for women (no filth intended0, not dressed up boys, and for making stars of the actors and actresses who starred in them. You’ll have to pick you own way through the sexual politics, guided by the director, to decide if the women here have real agency, and how sympathetic Wycherley is to his three male archetypes, Horner’s libertine lad, Pinchwife’s brutal possessive or Harcourt’s upstanding hunk, but it does seem amenable to various interpretations. Most of all though it has to be funny I guess and this is where, maybe, this production, came a little unstuck. I can’t fault the pace, but what with so much to think about, including lighting from Sam Waddington which highlighted every aside to the audience, I didn’t think the lines were delivered with perhaps as much relish as they deserved.

The regular reader of this blog (hello!) will know that I claim not to like musicals. Based on the music and choreography, if not maybe the play itself, I will certainly look at for Morphic Graffiti’s forays into that genre. Especially if they reel out the proverbial row of tents. They look like they are good a that.