The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Summer 2015
Director Simon Godwin and a spirited cast find a totally delightful comic romp in George Farquhar's 1707 play, a surprisingly effective mix of high wit, low farce and a leavening of real emotion and moral statement.
A pair of impoverished London gentlemen have retreated to the countryside, passing themselves off as master and servant, with the open project of marrying into provincial wealth.
One does find an actual rich and attractive young woman to woo, while the other whiles away his time flirting with her unhappily married sister-in-law.
And here's where the play gets more interesting than the average comedy of manners, because Farquhar takes that lady's unhappiness seriously, occasionally pausing to sympathise with her and to allow her to make a strong case for the dissolution of totally incompatible marriages – and all without breaking the overall effect of light romantic comedy.
(There is, of course, a lot more going on around the edges of the central plots to add to the comedy, including the lady's drunken husband, a crooked innkeeper and his lovely daughter, some inept highwaymen, an Irishman disguised as a French priest – don't ask – and the original Lady Bountiful imposing her generosity and wisdom on all and sundry.)
But the central fun comes from the two adventurers' attempts to present themselves as dashing wooers while not noticing that they are in fact falling in love, with the single young woman's delight at being wooed, and with the wife's wild swings between real unhappiness, proto-feminist outrage and good healthy randiness.
Simon Godwin directs with a sure hand, keeping the fun popping along and pausing just enough to let the serious moments register without spoiling the fun.
He wisely recognises that the playwright knew what he was doing with the mix of modes and tones, though he does occasionally allow himself and us the luxury of sending up some of the script's more absurd twists, as when the actors show a moment of panic when the script calls for them to sing or dance.
Geoffrey Streatfeild as the cleverer of the two men and Samuel Barnett as the more romantic prove a superb double act, whether alternating styles of comic lovemaking or joining forces in some swordplay derring-do against the baddies.
Susannah Fielding adeptly manoeuvres her way through the unhappy wife's many shifts in mood to great comic effect and holds our sympathy in the character's arguments for the right to more happiness.
As the girl with the money Pippa Bennett-Warner is given less to do than the others, but she delivers an attractive mix of girlish romantic excitement and the caution of having witnessed a bad marriage. Pearce Quigley ably and shamelessly steals all his scenes as a drolly lugubrious servant.
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