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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Samuel Barnett and Pippa Bennett-Warner/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

A popular device in late Restoration comedy was juxtaposing the passion and fervour of unalloyed romance with the cynical observation that many wedded couples find marriage more hiss than bliss. And so it is with George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, written in 1707 towards the end of his life.
The plot, in a nutshell, involves Aimwell and Archer, two young men of fashion from London who, down on their fortunes, temporarily decide to abandon the big city for the countryside, where they hope to con themselves into the good graces of a couple of wealthy local lasses then bilk them out of their fortunes.
Posing as a viscount and his servant (roles they alternate from village to village), they fetch up in Lichfield, where Aimwell (Samuel Barnett), playing the aristocrat this time, and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild) as his all-purpose factotum set out to ensnare Dorinda Bountiful (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and her sister-in-law Mrs. Sullen (Susannah Fielding), whose marriage to Mr. Sullen (Richard Henders), with whom she has nothing in common and loathes with every fibre of her body (the feelings are mutual), causes both parties never-ending distress. Predictably, Aimwell and Archer fall head over heels for Dorinda and Mrs. Sullen, respectively, vouchsafing the obligatory happy ending.
The farcical plot machinations (tweaked here by director Simon Godwin and Patrick Marber) are very much in the mould of several other Restoration dramatists but with one important difference: From a comic situation awash with mistaken identities, there’s a not-so-hidden plea advocating divorce on the grounds of mental incompatibility – an issue unacceptable in the 18th century. The Sullen’s marriage is, on all levels, a hell on Earth that quite clearly should be dissolved. And, by mutual consent in the play’s climax, it is. A bold move for the time.
Godwin employs a quintet of musicians who break the fourth wall as in a musical comedy to accommodate several songs (supplied by Michael Bruce), including a lively musical finale, which adds to the jollity of the evening.
In the end, though, the impression with which I was left was of a solid, above-average provincial rep production. What’s lacking is the star-quality that Maggie Smith, Robert Stehens and Ronald Pickup brought to William Gaskill’s 1970 staging; ditto Stephen Dillane and Brenda Blethyn in Peter Wood’s production a decade later. Only Fielding's feisty Mrs. Sullen possesses the kind of sparkle and polish Farquhar’s plot requires if its creaky contrivances are to be effectively lubricated.
Lizzie Clachan’s all-purpose set – serving both as an inn and as a rambling country estate – is constructed in such a way that it appears square-on to two thirds of the Olivier’s audience and at an awkward angle to the rest.


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