Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Theatre review: The Country Wife

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production invites the official critics in tomorrow.

A man enthusiastically spreading rumours of his own impotence is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense in a Restoration comedy, and it’s the premise of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Harry Horner (Eddie Eyre) has a reputation around London for stealing other men’s wives, to the point that no woman will come near him. After a visit to France he returns a changed man, having contracted one STD too many and been castrated by a French doctor. It is, of course, a ruse; married men will enjoy patronising the eunuch and feel safe leaving their wives with him, and he can seduce them at his leisure. While he’s spending time under the table with Lady Fidget (Sarah Lam,) he’s also acquired a new admirer: Pinchwife (Richard Clews) has recently returned from the countryside, where he married the seemingly unsophisticated Margery (Nancy Sullivan.)

Worried that bringing Margery to London will expose her to men who might cuckold him, Pinchwife mostly keeps her locked away, but on a rare trip out to the theatre she spots Horner and is smitten.

The third story strand follows Margery’s sister Alithea (Siubhan Harrison,) who’s due to marry the obligatory fop, Sparkish (Daniel Cane,) in a few days’ time. She meets Frank Harcourt (Leo Staar,) who falls for her and determines to sabotage the wedding and marry her himself, despite Alithea not seeming particularly fussed either way. I was about to say I haven’t seen The Country Wife before but it turns out I have, about ten years ago at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It’s not surprising if it doesn’t stand out among other Restoration comedies though: It may be even more unashamedly sex-obsessed than the genre usually is, but none of the plotlines hold much water, or offer up anything memorable beyond flimsy excuses for setpieces.

So it makes sense that director Luke Fredericks has gone for a high-concept production that resets the action to the 1920s and the height of the Bright Young Things, giving it a distinct identity that goes some way to overcome its generic Restoration comedy feel. Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costume designs look good, and sound designer Neil Rigg’s use of pop songs turned into Charlestons are a nice touch – although the use of dance for every set change does mean they drag on after a while.

I also didn't love the conceit of having a lighting change for every aside to the audience - not a problem in itself, but it highlights the way Wycherley is very fond of them, and like the dance breaks they soon outstay their welcome. On the other hand I’m unlikely to complain about any setting that allows for a scene set in a men’s gym changing room, and while I’m sure Eyre’s tendency to have his clothes fall off on a regular basis will get him a lot of attention, might I also point out that Joshua Hill as Dorilant is, as far as I'm concerned, the one making a strong play for a 2018 Best Nipples nomination.

The overall effect of the evening is mixed though; Sullivan, who was a great Sherbet Gravel a few years ago, is again a highlight here with her wild, flirtatious title character. Wycherley’s own text sometimes comes up with great moments as well – a bizarrely smutty scene involving vases, and the word “china” as an unlikely euphemism is the evening’s funniest scene. But the production’s attempt to counter the play’s rather nasty attitude to women feels more like underplaying it. The company are credited as having made adaptations to the original, and I don’t know if these are helping or hindering the way the stories all taper off: Alithea in particular feels strangely treated, on the surface a strong female character she actually seems perfectly happy to marry the comic relief, but the story requires she end up with the handsome stranger and sees her take very little agency, or even interest, in her own fate. Overall Fredericks’ production is always watchable, but doesn’t often translate its inventiveness and undeniable energy into actual big laughs.

The Country Wife by William Wycherley is booking until the 21st of April at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Darren Bell.


  1. I'm looking forward to this for various reasons now....!

    1. NGL, I think the production photos are going to have more of an enduring effect on me than the show.