earlier this year was proven to need fairly broad strokes to make it work, and fortunately Selina Cadell has experience directing these kinds of plays. Whether the efforts of Cadell and her cast are actually enough to make William Congreve's The Double Dealer look like a neglected classic is another story altogether. Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt) is engaged to Cynthia (Zoë Waites) but their upcoming marriage may be derailed if his aunt has her way: Lady Touchwood (also Waites) is angry at him for rejecting her own advances, and wants to sabotage the union, getting her hands on Mellefont's inheritance in the process.
To help her she enlists Maskwell (Edward MacLiam,) but as he's the titular Double Dealer he's actually playing both sides against each other, hoping to end up with both Cynthia's hand and the inheritance himself.
How any of this is meant to be achieved is never particularly clear, but the initial plan is to get Cynthia's father Sir Paul (Simon Chandler) to retract his permission for the marriage by spreading the rumour that Mellefont has been trying to seduce his new wife Lady Plyant (Jenny Rainsford.) This leads to some of the funniest scenes as Lady Plyant, so virginal she won't even let her husband touch her, turns out to be quite interested in his alleged advances, as well as those of his friend Careless (Dharmesh Patel.)
Cadell uses the Orange Tree's intimate in-the-round configuration to have the cast play a lot of their dialogue conspiratorially to the audience, and while some of the mugging and slapstick grated on me a bit, for the most part it's judged well. The first act doesn't make a lot of sense but is largely fun; by the second though the lack of a coherent plot means there's a lot of running around with no real payoff, as Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent) pursues Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely) in a subplot that goes nowhere.
There's also the weird decision to have Zoë Waites play both the women vying for Mellefont: I can understand the need to double up a small-ish cast, but why she's running around constantly changing costume while the other two women in the cast are underused is a distracting mystery. On the whole, Cadell makes a good fist of trying to redeem The Double Dealer, but by the end its archetypal characters just aren't distinct enough from each other, its story too incomprehensible for any amount of comic business to hold together.
The Double Dealer by William Congreve is booking until the 26th of January at the Orange Tree Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Robert Day.