Restorative Laughter

By Ian Shuttleworth

It’s just been Restoration comedy week: not formally, but two plays from 1700 opened within days of each other. there was also one from 1675 on the night between them, but that production was so coarsely overdone that even naming it would be more publicity than it deserves. At the Donmar Warehouse in the West end, William Congreve’s the Way of the World is beautifully done but surprisingly sombre; in Stratford- upon-Avon, the RSC have rediscovered the Beau defeated by neglected playwright Mary Pix, a real joy which is light on testosterone, and renamed it the Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich.

Let’s not get hung up on plots: both plays, like most others of the period, involve a knot of love affairs and marriages, all driven to success or failure (delete as appropriate) despite, or alternatively because of, cunning deceptions. It’s comparatively easy to keep the laughs and the plots coming, but each of these productions rings unexpected changes. The Way of the World moves partly past your standard Restoration jollies, as English society changed and grew a bit more sober. the main couple, Mirabell and millamant (Geoffrey Stratfield and Justine Mitchell), come together as equals by, basically, negotiating a prenup, and when treacherous Fainall tries to upset things, he’s bested not by wilier lads and lasses but by contract law.

James Macdonald's production, instead of skating over all the shadows, acknowledges them, so that this becomes a comedy-drama rather than just a laugh-in. From quite early on, rueful chuckles are in the ascendant over guffaws. Even the second-half appearance of Haydn Gwynne as the vain, credulous Lady Wishfort doesn’t banish all the clouds. But if you don’t get hung up on what you imagine a play like this should be, you’ll find that what it is is first-rate.

Virtually all of the women in Congreve’s play end up as victims in one way or another. In mary Pix’s play, they not only drive the plot but also the overall tone of the piece. this is closer to classic Restoration comedy, but not quite as rumbustious. After a while, I twigged that what I was missing from Jo Davies’ production was a male way of going about things, and realised how ridiculous that was. so, relax and enjoy Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich, who plays the audience as expertly and quirkily as... well, as the musical score, which is arranged for harpsichord and a quartet of saxophones. I defy you not to melt at the appearance of a couple of huge but serene wolfhounds, and if you insist on some rough-house there’s a fencing bout that degenerates into a comic catfight. Not tokenism, just big fun.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich runs in repertoire until 14 June at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 01789-403493, www.rsc.org.uk

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