Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Theatre review: The Beaux' Stratagem

I can't remember when I last saw a Restoration comedy at the National, but it feels like it's been quite some time. Simon Godwin makes up for this with George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem, which takes up residence in the Olivier with an impressive cast. Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild) are a pair of noblemen whose love of the high life has left them close to penniless. Their stratagem is to travel the country, Aimwell posing as a wealthy lord and Archer as his footman, until they can find a pair of heiresses to marry. Aimwell finds one in Lichfield, but of course he falls for Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for real. Archer also soon has eyes for her sister-in-law Mrs Sullen (Susannah Fielding) but she's still unhappily married to Dorinda's waster brother Sullen (Richard Henders.)

Back at the inn where the beaux are staying, innkeeper Boniface (Lloyd Hutchinson) runs a gang of burglars. He thinks his wealthy but secretive new guests may be highwaymen, and fears they'll draw attention to his and gang leader Gibbet's (Chook Sibtain) dodgy activities.

To accomodate the many shifts between the main locations, of the inn and the grand home of Dorinda's mother Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker,) Lizzie Clachan's come up with a multi-level set of doorways and staircases, the better to handle the plot's more farcical elements, with a series of sliding panels moving back and forth to effect the scene changes. The set is one of the most memorable parts of the production, its many levels and entrances helping one of the better running gags, in which musicians suddenly appear whenever Archer, seemingly against his will, has to sing a musical interlude.

Like many comedies of the time, The Beaux' Stratagem takes its time to get into its stride while setting up its plot strands but does - especially in the second act - have a lot of very good gags. A few of these come from little knowing nods to the more improbable story conventions (Godwin and Patrick Marber are credited with dramaturgy on Farquhar's original script.) Maybe I've been spoilt by Jessica Swale's productions though, but while individual moments are hilarious, the whole never quite builds up into the kind of joyous madness these silly plays can be capable of.

You can't fault the cast though - the show has real luxury casting that includes Pearce Quigley in the comparatively small role of Scrub, the multitasking servant at Lady Bountiful's house, inevitably steals all his scenes, while Jamie Beamish pops up as a rather dubious French priest. Fielding's Mrs Sullen may not be as revelatory a role as her Portia, but she's still a highlight of the production, warm but pragmatic. The play's climax unusually centres on a divorce rather than a wedding, and the whole show ends in a big song-and-dance, Michael Bruce having provided the music which lifts the production throughout. Overall Godwin's production is fun, but never quite relaxes into the explosive ridiculousness I guess I was hoping for.

The Beaux' Stratagem by George Farquhar is booking in repertory until the 20th of September at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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