Saturday, 28 April 2018

Theatre review: The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, or, The Beau Defeated

Restoration comedy has been having a moment lately, and after the efforts of Southwark Playhouse and the Donmar Warehouse comes the RSC to provide the element that's been missing so far: A production that actually works as a comedy. Mary Pix's The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, more commonly known as The Beau Defeated, has as daft and convoluted a plot as any in the genre but crucially, in Jo Davies' production at least, it's possible to actually follow. There's a few different plot strands, all revolving around people trying to find a partner and/or a fortune, but the two main ones follow two women looking for husbands based on very different criteria. Sophie Stanton plays the titular Mrs Rich, widow of a banker and, in a bit of character naming that's painfully on-the-nose even by Restoration comedy standards, she's very rich. But in 1700 as in 2018 banking isn't the most beloved of professions, so the way she got her money means the society ladies she wants to mingle with look down on her.

She needs a second husband who'll make her a "woman of quality," and Sir John Roverhead (Tam Williams) is the suitor she's got her eye on; but he's secretly leading a number of wealthy women on, including Mrs Rich's own niece Lucinda (Aretha Ayeh.)

Meanwhile Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger) has both money and a title, but she also has a romantic ideal no potential husband is likely to live up to. Charles Clerimont (Solomon Israel,) recently left penniless, seems like he might fit the bill, so Lady Landsworth and her sidekick Betty (Laura Elsworthy) come up with a racy plan to test him: She'll flirt with him in disguise, letting him assume she's a prostitute, and see if his morality is enough to keep him from temptation.

Davies' production, which adds new songs by Grant Olding to Pix's play, is suitably lacking in reverence from the start, Stanton giving a real glint of mischief to her character's social pretension and ridiculousness. In a company like the RSC that uses an ensemble casting model, you can see how a play like this is a gift, giving most of its cast at least one scene in which to shine - which they do, even against the scene-stealing pair of dogs that Charles' bull-in-a-china-shop elder brother (Leo Wringer) takes everywhere with him.

I love that lurchers are now the RSC's official dog of choice

Some of the notable supporting performances come from Will Brown and Sadie Shimmin as Charles' footman and landlady, the former regularly getting the latter drunk to make her help with his schemes, Amanda Hadingue as Elder Clerimont's brusque squire, and Sandy Foster and Susan Salmon as a couple of society women scamming Mrs Rich at cards. Colin Richmond's costumes are pleasingly OTT, and his set backdrops with the location names spray painted on them suggest the air of irreverence the production has. Most of all, it's nice to see a Restoration comedy that can actually deliver plenty of laughs again.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, or, The Beau Defeated by Mary Pix is booking in repertory until the 14th of June at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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