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The Provoked Wife

Sir John Vanburgh
Perfect Mayhem
Greenwich Playhouse
(2011)

The Provoked Wife production photo

Joss Bennathan's production updates Vanburgh's The Provoked Wife of 1697 to the 1920s. Their acerbic somewhat mannered style is not so very different in spirit from the late seventeenth century and the moneyed upper classes could still live the same leisured lives as Vanburgh's characters in this tale of a woman who attracted a wealthy husband but has never returned his love and now, while denying him is toying with the idea of infidelity while he has been driven to self indulgence.

Designer Charlotte Espiner has given it a simple but elegant setting and dressed it beautifully with an emphasis on reds, russets and blue-green, with black furniture and windows which can change for different locations or become trellis in public leisure gardens. The high style of the playing allows the characters to end a scene, sometimes freezing, and then perform quick choreographed scenic adjustments ready for the next. It keeps the production fast moving without compromising performances.

Laura Corbett's Lady Brute is very Knightsbridge, her disdainful eyes and twisting lips scornfully expressive while Joan Walker's Lady Fancifull, who you could swear was sporting a long cigarette holder even though cigarettes are totally absent, is like one of those ladies who stride after a pair of hounds in contemporary ceramics or were modelled to sit on the radiator caps of expensive motor cars. Fleur Shepherd as Lady Brute's niece Bellinda and Provence Maydew as Fancifull's French maid also give confident performances that could as easily have been in a twenties musical.

Sam Nicholl as Heartfree, the lady's man who has an eye on Bellinda and begins to fall in love with her, and Jamie Hutchins as his mate Constant, who rather hopes to have his way with Lady Brute, keep things going at a rattling pace and Oliver King and Joshua Manning pop up in a variety of guises, the former not just a contrasting double of a young butler and an elderly servant but an abused tailor and a PC plod as well, helping, as the play rolls on, to push things into a more farcical vein.

Sir John Brute, despite his name and the harsh treatment he can hand out, seems rather likeable as John Dorney plays him but, while the other two gentlemen are fairly conventional society beaux there are hints here of a much more complex character, not that Dorney gets the chance to play it. In repose he is very naturalistic but roused to passion ferociously farcical. With the pace of this production there is little time for subtle shading!

Bennathan has made cuts and alterations and I thought made a major alteration. I had never seen this play performed and, familiar with the famous portrait of Garrick in the role in which he appears in drag, was looking forward to this scene in particular. But that was not what was performed. I wondered what had been altered and on consulting an on-line text of the play it appeared that this scene had been replaced by a version in which he dresses up not in a dress intended for his wife but in a clerical garment intended for a clergyman. I must thank the play's producer Poppy Maydew for pointing out that Garrick performed a version amended on the instigation of Colley Cibber in 1725 and that Perfect Mayhem are following the original text and what Sir John purloins from the tailor he accosts is indeed a cassock. This apparently was changed to avoid offending eighteenth-century audiences who might think it ridiculed the Church.

Though one must applaud the company for playing the original text, I can't help a sneaking feeling that the Garrick version would be funnier.

I found the original version more confusing than hilarious. It certainly doesn't enable the actor to steal the show. This may be better for the balance of the production but, if Dorney had had the chance to do drunk in drag, perhaps his performance and the play would have taken off more. As it was, the escalation to farce that follows in the pleasure garden scene lost its impetus instead of building until the ladies' admirers have to cower in a closet to avoid discovery by Brute. There was no real change of mood as the difficulties are sorted out and as a consequence the final scenes of weddings and forced reconciliation felt rather flat rather than being a cynically contrived resolution..

"The Provoked Wife" runs at Greenwich Playhouse until 6th November 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton