The City Wives' Confederacy

John Vanbrugh

the Lion's part

Greenwich Playhouse

(2008)

Review by Kevin Quarmby

So you think of going to the theatre. You look in British Theatre Guide for something very topical and very funny. That looks good, a play about the London parvenu, with newly-moneyed husbands being fleeced by their naughty wives. There’s roguery and deceit, sexual innuendo and lashings of farcical running about. Then you notice, the play has been written by one of the most eminent architects of our time.

That’s the background to John Vanbrugh’s The City Wives’ Confederacy, first aired in 1705 and now revived in all its early-eighteenth-century glory by ‘the Lions part’ theatre company. It would be like Lord Richard Rogers, fresh from designing the iconic Gherkin, writing a hit West End musical. Vanbrugh, skilful playwright, was also Vanbrugh, architect of magnificent buildings like Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Vanbrugh truly was a post-Renaissance man. Evident not least in The City Wives’ Confederacy, which is a remarkably funny, fast-paced drama that immediately engages with its audience on all levels. This is partly because of Sonia Ritter’s excellent direction, partly a superb and committed cast of actors, and partly Vanbrugh’s apparently timeless comic writing.

The story itself is equally timeless. Since time immemorial, husbands have been more willing to spend their hard-earned cash on a new love-interest than on their neglected wives, whilst wives have also been more than willing to spend, spend, spend for want of anything better to do. When the wives in Vanbrugh’s comedy agree to form a confederacy of deceit, with which to steal from their foolish husbands, you know what will happen but still enjoy the unfolding of the tale.

All good comedies need their manipulative servants ready to guide their unfortunate betters into ever decreasing circles of self-deceit. The City Wives’ Confederacy has not one, but two. Flippanta, maid to Clarissa Gripe, and Brass, Flippanta’s own love-interest, are created in that classical tradition of troublesome tricksters. Kali Peacock is a comic genius as Flippanta, her every move and gesture, every facial expression of delightful sincerity. No wonder Henry Everett’s Brass falls so hopelessly in lust with her. Then again, with the rugged manliness of Everett’s roguery, the pair are well matched.

Dorothy Lawrence as Clarissa Gripe personifies the footballer’s wife of the early 1700s. New clothes and unpaid bills send Clarissa into the unscrupulous arms of Mrs Amlet (Sarah Finch), supplier of ladies’ goods and a whole lot more besides. Unfortunately for the Gripes, Mrs Amlet has a ne'er-do-well son, Dick (Tom Walker), who pretends to be a wealthy colonel to win the hand of Corinna Gripe, Clarissa’s young daughter. Corinna is as gauche as she is innocent. Kate Malyon is excellent in the role.

Of course, Gripe (Martin Ritchie) and Moneytrap (Michael Palmer) are driven by desire for each others’ wives, a desire which is doomed to abject failure. This pair of self-righteous and deceitful elderly lovers end up in the most hideous contortions as they wriggle and squirm to avoid being found out, thus only adding to the overall fun and frolic.

The City Wives’ Confederacy is definitely a humorous play. It is also incredibly well served by a committed cast. A wonderful alternative to the sticky confections on offer this Christmas. For some serious belly laughs and a general sense of an evening well spent, hurry along to Greenwich. You know it makes architectural sense.

Until 18th January