The Country Wife

William Wycherley
Theatre Royal Haymarket
(2007)

The arrival of the Theatre Royal Company at the Haymarket might just presage a new era in London theatre. Former Almeida co-supremo, Jonathan Kent promises the kind of continuity in a commercial West End house that even the National and the RSC are in danger of losing.

His idea is to have a fixed company under an artistic director whose adventurousness is amply demonstrated by a first season programme featuring this Restoration Comedy, the stark modernism of Edward Bond and what might be an epic musical from the creative team behind Les Miserables.

The company is packed with big names to the extent that in its inaugural production, William Wycherley's 1675 sex romp, The Country Wife, several have what are barely more than bit parts.

Kent attempts to mix old comedy with new, leaving himself in danger of ending up with a stage equivalent of low film japes - perhaps Carry On Cuckolding. This tone is clearly deliberate as the final curtain is accompanied by an aged version of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun. So do the audience but they only get it patchily.

The story is a gem, which is why it has lasted almost four and a half centuries. The well-named Horner, on this occasion played louchely by Toby Stephens, sets the ball rolling.

A friendly doctor makes it known about town that this unfortunate gent has "the French disease" and is therefore no better than a eunuch. This is a key that blinds husbands to infidelity and opens the hearts (and chastity belts or equivalent) of their wives.

The queue of women is long. Patricia Hodge as Lady Fidget leads a patrician trio of ladies of "a certain age" that includes the gorgeously named Dainty Fidget and Mrs Squeamish (Lucy Tregear and Liz Crowther), heartily encouraged by Nicholas Day as her obliging dupe of a husband, Sir Jasper.

He is mirrored by two contrasting brothers-in-law. An excellent David Haig is suitably manic and spluttering in the role of the newly-married and unbelievably jealous Pinchwife, whose wife gets pinched, while the deliciously foppish Jo Stone-Fewings plays his brother Sparkish. He is a fellow who is so trusting that he repeatedly forces his betrothed on to his handsome best pal, John Hopkins' Harcourt, a member of the laddish Wits, whose designs are not as innocent as they should be.

As Pinchwife's Country Wife Margery, a part played by Stephens' mother Maggie Smith at Chichester as far back as 1969, Fiona Glascott provides the most striking example of this production's major flaw, a desire to overact or even mug rather than trusting what is essentially a very funny script packed with double entendres and comic situations.

Using an accent that is frequently closer to Irish bogs than Yorkshire Moors and hindered by a failure of the sound system for the first half, Miss Glascott screeches too often. She also shows inappropriately modern reactions, exemplified by a pogoing tantrum, whether in response to her husband's tiresome jealousy or the pleasurable prospect of a meeting (or worse fate) with any man closer to her own age, particularly Master Horner.

The best of the fun comes as protective Pinchwife finally gulls himself into offering his beloved to Horner, while simultaneously, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as his sister Ms (sic) Alithea desperately resists the efforts of Sparkish to do likewise with her.

By the end, some honour, a word that Wycherley regards differently from the rest of us having for him more reference to appearance than action, is restored but only at the expense of at least one marriage.

Paul Brown's set and costumes mix ancient and modern, most amusingly in Margery's hideous pink boudoir, complete with live white magician's rabbit, where she is petted by her husband like an untrained puppy.

The Haymarket Theatre is looking gorgeous after an expensive face lift and visitors will get a good number of laughs from this first production by its new company, especially after the interval. However, with a play of this type and class, one feels that there could have been more had some different artistic decisions been taken.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for The Country Wife.

Philip Fisher