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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Woman Hater
Orange Tree Theatre      Winter 2007-2008

This mini-National Theatre in suburban Richmond has done it again, putting the larger subsidised institutions to shame by not only rediscovering a lost delight from the Eighteenth Century but giving it as fine and entertaining a production as its long-dead authoress could have dreamed of.

Best known as a gothic novelist and keeper of an historically invaluable journal, Francis 'Fanny' Burney's forays into drama were generally shelved and not performed in her lifetime or after.

It took Orange Tree Artistic Director Sam Walters' dedicated search for 'lost' plays and female writers to uncover this gem and give it its world premiere more than 100 years late.

And what he has discovered, and done full justice to in production, is a comedy at least as good as anything Burney's contemporaries Sheridan and Goldsmith were writing.

The title character of this romp is a rich old man who has sworn off women and banished them and any talk of them from his home, since he was jilted seventeen years ago, his prejudice reinforced when his own sister was turned away by her husband around the same time for a suspected infidelity.

And now both women are in the neighbourhood hoping to be reconciled with him, at just the same time that the young male cousin he has raised as his heir is beginning to rebel against the no-women rules.

Now let's add some complications. Also in town is the sister's husband, belatedly realising his error and hoping to be reconciled. Husband and wife are each accompanied by a girl they believe to be their daughter - I'm not giving away anything you won't guess when I reveal that a nurse did a baby switch years ago.

And the young man of a paragraph back is in love with one of the girls without knowing who she is.

Comedy thrives on eccentric characters. In addition to the old man who gets apoplectic at the mere mention of women, Burney's finest creation is the woman who jilted him back then.

She's now a full sister to Mrs. Malaprop, her quirk being that she incessantly quotes from her wide reading, without ever being quite sure who she's quoting ('As Shakespeare says - or is it Otway, or maybe Swift....')

But there's also that estranged and repentant husband, labouring under the impression that he's in a heavy melodrama and chewing up the scenery accordingly. And while one of the young girls is a dutiful daughter, the other is a hoyden eager to escape parental control.

Any comic writer is delighted to be able to work in that sure-fire staple, the cross-purposes conversation built on misunderstanding. Burney has a half-dozen of them.

One of the daughters tries to appeal to her rich woman-hating uncle for aid, but picks the wrong man, who thinks she's a whore propositioning him.

A father and son in the same compromising situation for different innocent reasons each assume the worst of the other. The husband and wife, not realising there are two supposed daughters, totally misread what each is saying.

All of these scenes, and the others of the same sort, are great fun precisely because we know the truth behind each confusion, and Burney employs the device again and again without repeating herself.

So this really is a rediscovery of some significance. And it is also a lot of fun, and the opportunity for some spirited comic acting.

Clive Francis takes the title character to extremes of comic rage and frustration while Auriol Smith steals every scene as the lovably absent-minded literary lady.

Taking two different routes to hilarity, David Gooderson quietly underplays the older man befuddled by having a young woman seem to come on to him and Michael Elwyn finds all the fun in the repentant husband's melodramatic excesses.

Director Sam Walters deserves thanks not only for finding the play, editing it skilfully and staging it smoothly, but for knowing just when to play it straight, when to enrich it with comic business, when to camp it up and when just to stay out of its way.

Once again a fifteen-minute train ride from Waterloo will take you to a theatrical delight you should - but won't - be finding closer in.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Woman Hater - Orange Tree Theatre 2007


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