Restoration “comedy” is an acquired taste. And I’m really not sure that I’ve got it. When the play is good, you don’t really notice it as you’re too busy enjoying it (see my review of “The Man of Mode”). When its bad, it can be a real uphill struggle. In fact, I was really quite relieved when this play was over – there are only so many “humorous” comings and goings, seductions, betrayals, “disguises” and reconciliations that I can take in one evening. And lordy, there were a lot of them in this play. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. My Bestest Friend in the Whole World (Hi Danni!) has oft commented that, not having a boyf obsessed with taking her to the theatre (there are drawbacks, Danni, believe me!), she misses out when reading these reviews because she’s not familiar with the play. So there will be a regular “Synopsis” section for each production from now on.
“The Country Wife tells the story of Horner, a notorious and lascivious man - about - town and his ingenious scheme for the rampant and mass seduction of the women of London society. By spreading the false rumour of his own impotence, he gains the sympathy of the husbands of the town and, more importantly, free access to their wives. Meanwhile the newly-married Pinchwife desperately attempts to keep his naïve country bride from the clutches of predatory London
bachelors. When she and Horner meet, events spiral out of his control…”
I think you get the idea.
I have to say that I enjoyed the production of this play a lot more than I enjoyed the play itself. It really was an uphill struggle by the end. Around me, people seemed to be pissing themselves with laughter but I just couldn’t see what they were laughing at. What seemed amusing in Act I was getting a bit tiresome by Act II. I think what put me off was that elements of this play come very close to farce – not my favourite genre of theatre. There is a lot of hiding in cupboards, disguises that really wouldn’t fool anyone, marital discord eventually resolved, substituted letters, frantic searches for people who have just gone offstage – you know the kind of stuff; all the usual elements of “Whoops, There Go My Trousers!” as performed by the West Wiggington on Sea Amateur Players, Every Night This Week (plus Saturday Matinee) in the Church Hall. But with “The Country Wife”, you get all this plus corsets, full bottomed wigs and people saying “Gadzooks, wench! Thou hast indeed a goodly pantouffle, or my name’s not Sir Spratlington Spyglass!” and trying to sound like they know what they are talking about. This kind of stuff floats the boat of a lot of people, but not me.
I did like what the costume designer did in this production. The oldest character of all was dressed in strict period costume with an appropriate wig. Middle-aged characters were dressed in costumes of appropriate period design, but clearly made of modern materials – Sir Jasper Fidget (groan!) was wearing a Restoration frock coat, waistcoat and knickerbockers, but these were made of pinstriped suiting, and he had on a modern collar and tie, and a pinstriped shirt with big baggy cuffs that flopped out from his sleeves, and his hair was vaguely “old fashioned” in style but not strictly period. And the younger characters had modern haircuts and wore costumes with an appropriate period silhouette, but with modern elements – the four young male leads all had on jazzy frock coats in peacock colours, teamed with modern shirts, baggy jeans and black lace up shoes. Clever!
I also liked most of the scenic elements – no attempt was made at realism and there was a deliberate “stage set” look to them. I loved the way that a green interior wall with a panel of painted foliage stayed on stage when the scene changed to an outdoor one and just became “part of the scenery” in Vauxhall Gardens – which was particularly pretty in a kind of “pantomime” kind of way. The “garden” set too was well realised – a rear wall with an iron gate and a pallisaded apple tree, a small rostrum centre stage covered in green felt with three large pots of roses and a watering can on it, and a steamer chair. Not realistic but hey – instant garden.
The interior sets were less well done - there seems to be a fashion in theatre design at the moment to have your set consist of one wall of an interior, sharply angled and with lots of doors and set into the wall, each of which is larger than the one upstage of it, so that the wall looks longer than it really is (ie the door nearest the audience is normally sized, and they get smaller as you go towards the back of the stage). This, of course, falls completely flat when actors have to come in through the door furthest upstage and have to duck their head so that they don’t bang it on the lintel. I’ve seen several productions use this type of set this year and its getting tiresome. There also seems to be a fashion to paint your set in virulent colours – so Horner’s house was all dark peacock blue and mauve in a kind of flock wallpaper design, and Pinchwife’s house shocking pink and covered in flamboyant roses, both of which got a bit difficult to take after a while. There was, however, to CBB’s delight, a real rabbit (white) in a hutch (pink) – he’s easily pleased, bless him; I think he could have watched it being fed lettuce (green) for hours.
Even given that I found the play heavy going, I enjoyed some of the performances. This must be the first time ever that I’ve seen Patricia Hodge not play Patricia Hodge and she showed her complete mastery of comic timing with her throwaway lines. Both Toby Stephens (Horner) and Jo Stone-Fewings (Sparkish) were doing what CBB calls “Thigh Acting” and the latter took the prize for both “Lantern Jaw with butch 5 o clock Shadow Acting” and “I’ve Got a Big Packet Tucked Into My Jeans Acting”. Wonderfully cocky – in all senses of the word. In fact, he seemed more in possession of the stage than Stephens, who is technically the lead. David Haig was a bit of a disappointment – much spluttering and frantic spewing out of lines while rushing round the stage, but I suppose the part of Pinchwife is written like that, so its hard to see what else he could have done really. For such an old trooper, Janet Brown was practically inaudible for much of her dialogue and I noticed that the quality of silence from the audience deepened whenever she spoke – it was quite obvious that people were having to strain to hear what she said. It’s a shame that the director couldn’t be persuaded to let her play the part as Maggie Thatcher. Fiona Glascott as Margery, the eponymous “Country Wife” seemed to be playing the part as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous and I found her very heavy going – mostly because her accent was so thick (oh, I see! She’s playing a country bumpkin! ‘Ello moi Luvver!) that she’d finish saying a line long before I could work out exactly she’d said – goodness knows what the Merkins from Beddidlybong, Idaho must have thought. But then they probably think we all speak like that in this country. And drink warm beer and bicycle through the sunset to Evensong as well.
What the critics thought: