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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Country Wife
Haymarket Theatre Autumn-Winter 2007

They knew some things, did those Restoration playwrights.

They knew that sex was good dirty fun, that women could be as randy as men, that the chase could be as enjoyable as the capture, and that there was nothing funnier than a married man, except maybe for an inept player of the social games.

And their comedies, too often played as deadly talky costume dramas, were actually jolly Benny Hill-style romps in celebration of the fun of life.

And all of this is captured in Jonathan Kent's exuberant revival of one of the best of the genre, William Wycherley's witty and bawdy classic.

Actually, 'classic' is exactly what director Kent and his superb cast don't treat this play as, joking with it, joking around it, and generally using it as the opportunity for the performers to seem to have as much fun as the audience.

This is the one about the rake who puts it about that he is impotent, since this will lead usually wary husbands to give him free access to their eager-to-stray wives. Meanwhile, one supremely jealous man has thought to avoid cuckoldry by marrying a simple country girl, only to discover that it takes very little exposure to town ways for her to get enthusiastically into the swing of the game.

Toby Stephens plays the clever seducer with swashbuckling elan, self-delighting wit and even a touch of mocking self-awareness as he watches his subterfuge play out. It's a magnetic, high-energy performance that sweeps the play along.

Matching him in comic energy is the ever-reliable David Haig as the most jealous of husbands. Nobody can do the comic frenzy of confusion and despair better than Haig, and the knots he twists himself into, as nothing seems able to prevent his wife's imminent and enthusiastic debauching, are masterclasses in comic acting.

The whole cast is first-rate. Fiona Glascott captures the near-idiotic simple-mindedness of the title character and also the wild sexuality just waiting to break out, and makes both adorable. Jo Stone-Fewings is a delight as the obligatory fop and would-be wit who is so self-absorbed that he doesn't notice a friend making love to his fiancée right in front of him.

John Hopkins and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh anchor that couple, perhaps the most serious and solid characters in the play, in a reality that helps keep the rest of the action from floating away. Nicholas Day as a husband particularly eager to hand his wife over to our hero, Patricia Hodge as that thoroughly agreeable conquest, and Lucy Tregear and Liz Crowther as other wives impatiently waiting in the queue, all add to the fun.

Paul Brown's design is happily anachronistic, period costumes co-existing with modern props, and the whole set in a candy-coloured world that hints at an almost childlike innocence beneath all the debauchery.

If your only experience of Restoration comedy is in the classroom or some static, talky staging, take this opportunity to discover just how much naughty fun it can be at its absolute best.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Country Wife - Haymarket 2007