Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Theatre review: A Lady of Little Sense

The first chance for the Arcola's Spanish Golden Age rep season to atone for its green-trousered sins is another comedy of arranged marriages. There's nothing spectacular about Lope de Vega's A Lady of Little Sense, but it does have its moments, which at least puts it above the season opener. If there's echoes of a Shakespeare play again, this time it would be The Taming of the Shrew, as once again two very different sisters seek husbands. Nise (Katie Lightfoot) is highly intelligent and educated, but arrogant and abrasive with it. Her younger sister Finea (Frances McNamee) on the other hand is a childlike, clumsy, prattling moron. Finea's dowry is vastly bigger than her sister's to make up for her shortcomings, but it's still not enough for any man to put up with her borderline insanity. Until Nise's favourite suitor Laurencio (Nick Barber) decides to switch his attentions to the wealthier, stupider sister.

Laurencio secretly agrees with Finea's betrothed Liseo (Simon Scardifield) to swap the objects of their affections, but Laurencio seems to have got the better end of the bargain as love causes a transformation in the simpleton.

This isn't a great play, and Laurence Boswell's production makes little argument that it is, but if it's short on big laughs there's a few chuckles along the way. After a dull start the production starts to find its feet as Finea finds her wits, in no small measure thanks to a lovely, bright performance by McNamee. Her sense of physical comedy also redeems a production that doesn't pull its weight in that regard elsewhere (her failure to seductively flick a fan open is a nice little moment.)

Although not as ineptly throw together as Don Gil's, de Vega's plot is frustratingly awkward at times - I think the idea is that the money-hungry Laurencio actually develops real feelings for Finea as she becomes a rounded, intelligent person. But the story's rather clumsily told in this area so what could have been a surprisingly modern sentiment comes across more like the idiot woman getting some brains thanks to the love of a man.

But although much of the play is second rate, there are moments when the production comes vibrantly to life - Jon Nicholls' bombastic music often helps, nowhere more so than in a lively dance sequence as Nise realises she now has competition from her previously-inept sister. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend A Lady of Little Sense but, largely thanks to a performance from Frances McNamee that, appropriately enough, sparkles with intelligence, it's far from a lost cause.

A Lady of Little Sense by Lope de Vega in a version by David Johnston is booking in repertory until the 15th of March at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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