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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Double Dealer
Orange Tree Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

The essence of Restoration comedy is high wit, decorous bawdry, incredibly convoluted plots and stock comic characters as tightly defined and broadly drawn as in any Christmas Panto. Selina Cadell's production of William Congreve's Double Dealer touches all the bases, making for a stylish and consistently funny evening.

A simplification of the plot: Mellefont and Cynthia are in love and plan to marry. But older Lady Touchwood lusts after Mellefont and decides that if she can't have him, no one can. To that end she enlists her lover Maskwell to break them up. But Maskwell has schemes of his own, with designs both on Cynthia and on Mellefont's inheritance.

All this goes on against a comic backdrop of fools, fops, ladies using their supposed prudishness to mask their adulterous yearnings, men perfectly happy to serve those yearnings, and blindly happy cuckolded husbands.

Congreve actually delivers well above the usual quota of comic types – allowing for a little overlap between categories, there actually three seemingly chaste but secretly randy wives, three cuckolded husbands, and two foppish fools.

As an actress who has appeared in Restoration comedies, director Selina Cadell knows the genre well, and she has guided her cast to exactly the right balance of subtlety, broad comedy and self send-up, so that every character functions on the same heightened-reality level and every potential gag, bawdy or not, is fully realised.

She also uses the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage more effectively than any director since founder Sam Walters, exploiting the text's many asides and spoken thoughts to have the actors address the audience – sometimes individual members – directly, bringing us in on the joke.

Cadell also realises, as too many directors don't, that the in-the-round staging requires every actor to keep moving, because anyone planted in one place will have his or her back to half the audience.

A bit unusually for the genre, the central couple are not particularly active plotters, but function more as the targets and victims of the others. This means that actor Lloyd Everitt as Mellefont actually has one of the least defined and developed characters to play, and he must generously serve the production by functioning as straight man and feed to the others.

The character of Cynthia is even blander, but actress Zoe Waites also doubles as Lady Touchwood, moving smoothly and always clearly between the chaste heroine and the randy old would-be villainess, even when she has to jump back and forth within a scene, and the inventiveness and high energy of her doubling adds considerably to the fun.

Again in a bit of a variation from the genre, the play's title character and most active figure is the villainous Maskwell. While a case might be made for even more Panto-level broad playing than Edward MacLiam brings to the role, I'd argue that he and director Cadell made the right choice in underplaying him.

Maskwell's mode is to fool everyone into thinking he's working for them against the others, and MacLiam keeps us guessing for a while as to whose side he's on before coming out clearly and hiss-the-villain openly as following his own nefarious agenda.

Similarly, one might wish that the fools were a little more foolish or the cuckolds a little more comic. But having chosen a level of comic reality director Cadell wisely and skilfully keeps everyone and everything on that thoroughly entertaining level.

The play itself loses steam toward the end as Congreve rather perfunctorily wraps up all the plot strands, and the last half-hour or so begins to drag in a way the rest hadn't.

Up to then it is as romping and ribald as you could ask a Restoration comedy to be.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Double Dealer - Orange Tree Theatre 2018

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