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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE COUNTRY WIFE
at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

NOT WHAT IT APPEARS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Toby Stephens and Patricia Hodge/Ph: Clare Park

As if to make up for the Puritans' wholeale gagging of the London theatre during the five year reign of Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration playwrights bombarded audiences with a catalogue of prurient comedies that threw morality to the proverbial winds excavating, in the process, the lewder, cruder, aspects of human nature. One of the most daring of these comedies was William Wycherley's The Country Wife, written in 1675 and considered so shocking and sexually explicit that it was outlawed for 170 years. And it is not difficult to see why. It's all about the sexual shenanigans of a personable rake appropriately called Horner who, after a visit to Paris, lets it be known (erroneously, of course) that he has been rendered impotent, thereby gaining easy access to wives whose husbands might otherwise stand in his way.

Though Horner provides Wycherley with his central idea the plot is fuelled by the bumbling cuckhold Pinchwife, an insecure dolt of a man who, in order to protect his unsophisticated country wife Margery from predatory gallants such as Horner, puts it about that Margery is too ugly and silly" to be seen in refined London society circles. The ploy backfires mightily.Not only is Horner more determined than ever to ravish the wench, but the wench is equally determined to be ravished by him.

As played by David Haig, Pinchwife's character is the most fully-rounded of the evening - an egregious fool with a frantic line in hysterical anxiety who fears the worst and is incapable of preventing the inevitable. It's a glorious performance, full of sound and fury signifying total impotence. And his asides to the audience are hilarious. As Horner, Toby Stephens certainly has the looks, but there's too much self-conscious swagger about him. Stephens's attempts to be a far sexier hunk than his own natural personality allows, is a mistake. Sexual charisma is something that cannot be successfully faked. To quote Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy, you've either got it, or you ain't.

Most of the supporting performances are fine, with Patricia Hodge's raunchy Lady Fidget, Elizabeth Dermot-Walsh as the serene Alithia and a genuinely sexy John Hopkins as the man who falls in love with her, the best of the bunch.

Only Fiona Glascott strikes an unfortunate discord as a shrill and shrewish Margery Pinchwife. The first of three productions for Jonathan Kent's new Haymarket Theatre Company, it's directed by Kent with, at times, too cumbersome and heavy a hand, but with just enough spice and brio to keep Wycherley's outrageously daring puns, double-entendres and plot machinations simmering entertainingly. Paul Browns's sets do everything required of them, while his costumes effectively blend the 17th century with the 21st. Apart from David Haig's performance, everything about this production could, and should have been just that much better.

 


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