Theatre

The Country Wife @ Theatre Royal Haymarket, London



cast list
David Haig
Patricia Hodge
Toby Stephens
Liz Crowther
Fiona Glascott
Catherine Bailey
Timothy Bateson
Tristan Beint
Janet Brown
Nicholas Day
Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh
John Hopkins
David Shaw-Parker
Jo Stone-Fewings
Lucy Tregear

directed by
Jonathan Kent
This new staging of William Wycherley’s bawdy Restoration comedy is the first in a new three play season at the West End’s opulent Theatre Royal Haymarket.

It’s not the most daring of productions though, not by a long way; instead Jonathan Kent has created a crowd pleasing, if rather muddled show, a colourful, noisy thing with a top cast crammed into elaborate costumes. A wealth of surface gloss with little underneath.

It does, it has to be said, look great. Paul Brown’s perspective-skewing sets, in bright blues and brighter pinks, are visually very exciting. Ditto the outfits, blending period splendour with more modern touches (the men, for example, wear silk frock coats over tight jeans and billowing shirts).

Though admittedly aesthetically striking, in other areas the production doesn’t hold together very well. This combination of modern and period elements is echoed in the performances and in the way the text has been adapted and it leads to some rather confusing messages being sent out. The muddied morals of Wycherley’s play have been glossed over in favour of playing up the comedy, which is broadened to the point of pantomime at times. It’s all double-entendres, smutty asides and phallic vases. The harder, more unpleasant aspects of the text lose their power as a result.

The play concerns Horner, a known cad, who puts around the rumour he is now impotent having picked up something nasty overseas (people keep saying “Oh, he’s been in France” as way of explanation). His new found status as a ‘eunuch’ allows him to spend time with other men’s wives un-chaperoned, something he intends to take full advantage of. However his plans go awry when the innocent young wife of his friend jealous and over-protective Pinchwife develops a stonking huge crush on him.

Kent’s production benefits from a strong ensemble cast. Toby Stephens is entertaining as the rakish, crotch-driven Horner, though it’s a very broad performance. The excellent David Haig gets another chance to do his patented frantic and exasperated act. But though he’s adept at making desperate asides to the audience (his pained, pleading “what do you think?” is one of the highpoints of the evening), he doesn’t quite convey the underlying menace the character demands. When Pinchwife locks up his young wife and threatens to put out her eyes and carve the word whore in her face with a pen-knife, it’s greeted with genial laughter when it should provide a bit of a jolt.

John Hopkins makes an appealing Harcourt, but Fiona Glascott, as the titular Country Wife, didn’t hit the right notes for me. She was simply too childish all foot stamping and pouty sulking and conversely not nearly innocent enough; there was something that was just too calculating about her take on the character.

There are several scenes of well-paced farce but all sense of the seedy, corrupting city was lost. It kept me entertained and delivered some laughs but it was as light and fluffy as candyfloss; sugar and sparkle aplenty but little in the way of substance.



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