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The Country Wife

William Wycherley
Helen Mirren at the BBC
(2008)

Is he an hypocrite or an eunuch? This is the key question that must be answered in William Wycherley's Restoration Comedy about "the London disease they call love". These days, we would call it sex.

The Country Wife was recently revived to launch the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, in a lacklustre production that threw doubt on the value of the play. Strangely, it works extremely well on television with Donald McWhinnie's excellent cast helping to ensure that there are laughs throughout.

It is all based on the witty conceit that the well-named Mr Horner, played by a handsome Anthony Andrews in a King Charles wig, has been emasculated. He cleverly spreads the rumour about town in an effort to inoculate himself against the jealousy of husbands.

The result is that he has freedom with their wives and sisters, turning the menfolk into eager cuckolds.

The most enthusiastic of the lot is the impressively jealous Bernard Cribbins as Pinchwife, so well rendered by David Haig at the Haymarket. At an advanced age, he has taken a young country wife, Margery, played by the future Dame Helen Mirren with a broad West Country accent.

At the same time, his dutiful sister, Ciaran Madden's Alithea, is engaged to the ultimate foolish fop Sparkish, well played by a spluttering Michael Cochrane. She is a good and devoted lady and despite the attractions of Jeremy Clyde in the role of Horner's best friend Harcourt, is determined to marry the man to whom she has offered her hand.

This mixture is well stirred by Wycherley with secret letters and confused identities. He also throws in a wealthy old fool, Sir Jasper Fidget (John Nettleton). He enthusiastically offers the presumed eunuch the company not only of his wife (Adrienne Corri) but also his sister (Ann Beach) and married friend Mrs Squeamish (Coronation Street's Amanda Barrie).

This production is founded on the performances of the central trio. Helen Mirren perfectly mixes innocence with innate sexual knowledge; Anthony Andrews is a charming juggler of married ladies; and Bernard Cribbins has no trouble with a more serious comic role than one has become used to.

Each of them times their comedy perfectly in a very enjoyable one hour and 50 minutes that amply demonstrates why this play survives 400 years after its creation.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher