The Beaux' Stratagem

George Farquhar
Central Line Touring
Lichfield Garrick Studio
(2005)

Since Lichfield Garrick opened just under two years ago, there's been a propensity to perform works associated with the city.

George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer was one of the first productions at the Garrick and was presented by Moving Theatre, the company Corin Redgrave founded with his sister Vanessa. The author is said to have written some of the play while staying at the George Hotel in Lichfield.

Similarly, The Beaux' Stratagem was influenced by the characters and events Farquhar encountered while he was in the Staffordshire city.

The problem with both Restoration comedies is that the humour hasn't stood the test of time. The Recruiting Officer was billed as "the greatest British comedy ever written" yet I found few laughs in it. Likewise The Beaux' Stratagem won't have you rolling in the aisles. But Central Line Touring, a Midlands-based co-operative agency run exclusively for local actors, has admirably risen to the challenge presented by this play.

The first test is presented by the space. Fifteen actors who cleverly introduce their characters at the start are crammed in, yet somehow they never get in one another's way.

Director Kim Gillespie has taken liberties with the casting, with two women playing men's parts. It's a success because Lou Webb has a deep enough voice and guttural laugh to carry off the role of Aimwell, the gentleman looking to make his fortune; and Amanda-Leigh Owen has an almost Dickensian look as a highwayman.

The success of the evening is Julia Binns as Mrs Sullen, a squire's wife who is unhappy in her mismatch of a marriage and wants a more meaningful relationship. She draws you to herself with her excellent delivery and slightly exaggerated mannerisms, although she never goes over the top.

There are neat touches when a couple of characters hold up a frame and other actors pose as pictures in an art gallery; and when all the cast get involved playing horses, footmen and passengers when a coach arrives in Lichfield.

The one thing which didn't work for me was the mixture of old and new. For the most part The Beaux' Stratagem is a traditional production, with exquisite costumes provided by the RSC. It was strange that pop songs were introduced - and the first didn't come until just before the interval.

Perhaps director Gillespie recognised in some of the relationships parallels with today's society and wanted to blur the boundaries between the old and the new as well as male and female. But to introduce Tammy Wynette songs Good Girls Gonna Go Bad and Stand By Your Man seemed superfluous. The Adam and the Ants' songs Stand And Deliver and Prince Charming appeared slightly less out of place; they were heard during highwaymen's scenes which bordered on slapstick - but I was baffled by their inclusion. A couple of extra modern songs in the first half might have given a more balanced feel and prepared you for what was to come. In its current form The Beaux' Stratagem appears to have a slight identity issue.

But because the play is called The Beaux' Stratagem, maybe Gillespie wanted to introduce a little deception of his own and play a trick with conventionality.

This is a good production of a difficult play although, like The Recruiting Officer, one which may not be restored very often.

"The Beaux Stratagem" runs until Saturday, April 16th

Reviewer: Steve Orme