Friday, 20 April 2018

Theatre review: The Way of the World

A delayed trip to the Donald and Margot Warehouse, where James Macdonald's production of The Way of the World has been sadly overshadowed by the reason the performance I was originally due to see was cancelled: Actor Alex Beckett's unexpected death. Performances of William Congreve's Restoration comedy have now resumed with Robin Pearce replacing Beckett as Waitwell, and the rest of the run being dedicated to the late actor's memory. Unfortunately it proves a pretty poor memorial, as Macdonald has produced an interminable, impenetrable and woefully unfunny evening whose cast try hard to inject some energy into it but only succeed in small doses. I don't think I've seen Congreve's play before but I suspect it has to take a lot of the blame itself; the lengthy first scene in which Mirabel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Fainall (Tom Mison) exchange exposition about numerous similarly-named characters we haven't met yet sets a lugubrious tone the rest of the play struggles to get out of, and left me none the wiser about who anyone was by the time they turned up.

Regular readers might have both noticed that I like to include at least a brief synopsis of the story early in a review, but it's hard to do here; I can't remember when I was last so unclear on what was going on in a play beyond the fact that there's lots of women talking about men they say they hate but secretly love, and something about an inheritance. It didn't remotely register with me until Mison and Jenny Jules started doing The Evil Voice* at the dénouement that they were meant to be the villains of the piece.

I don't want to mention Jessica Swale every time I see a disappointing Restoration comedy, but it would help if directors didn't keep making me wish she hadn't stopped directing them. Macdonald's period-dress production (Anna Fleischle's design is lush but not particularly interesting) seems to want to rely on the text itself to do a lot of the work, especially in the first half. It's a honking great 90 minutes of setup in which, for the most part, you could have heard a pin drop in the audience. The Donmar's thrust stage really should lend itself ideally to having the cast involve the audience during the asides, but I sat back and watched endless opportunities to flirt and joke with the front row played as straight as possible.

The cast do their best to liven up proceedings - Fisayo Akinade's Witwoud is an endearing fop trying to disguise his country origins, and as his bumpkin half-brother Christian Patterson has a bombast that lightens up the second half. Simon Manyonda brings a louche charm to Petulant, but like most of the cast has trouble maintaining his energy, getting swept up into the underwhelming proceedings. Best at keeping up the interest are Justine Mitchell's brusque, distracted Millamant, and Haydn Gwynne who as Lady Wishfort hams things up enjoyably. In fact after the interval, when things actually start to happen, is a lot better than before, but nowhere near enough to rescue an evening desperately in need of cutting and tightening up. When the biggest laugh comes from an audience member sneezing you must know you're doing something wrong.

The Way of the World by William Congreve is booking until the 26th of May at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*and Sarah Hadland's in this, you'd think she could have warned them

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