The fantastic follies of Mrs Rich
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
“Learn to plot, not to accept your lot.” It could be the battle-cry of the women in the current feminist regime at the RSC. And that’s the cry of Mrs Rich, the widow with pots of money and very little class, who longs to be a duchess.
This 1700 comedy, originally entitled The Beau Defeated, and written by the now neglected Mary Pix, is a tangled tale of schemes and scams. Suffice it to say that our heroine, despised by “quality”, envied by equals, succeeds only after humiliation by a bunch of tricksters, while the similarly disposed Lady Landsworth adopts the bizarre strategy of pretending to be a prostitute to test her chosen second husband.
It’s a tangled tale that would benefit from a better summary in the programme, especially for a rather languid first half, and with few gags in the original it might be said that if this play is the pick of Pix, it doesn’t say a lot for wholesale revival.
Nevertheless, director Jo Davies and her team do a splendid job of turning this pig’s ear into a silk purse, especially thanks Grant Olding’s witty songs that make Mrs Rich a more credible and sympathetic figure, and Colin Richmond’s glorious designs: OTT frou-frouerie and magnificent tapestry-like backdrops.
Sophie Stanton’s Mrs Rich is ab-fab, seriously silly, yet still playing the audience with the knowing determination of a social climber. Her dismay at reading of her supposed beau’s conquests provokes sympathy and laughter in equal measure, and a sword-fight—armed at first with feather duster—is a joy to behold.
As a satire on petty snobbery, this late Restoration would not have unduly disturbed its privileged audience, as it falls to Mrs R’s eminently respectable brother-in-law and the more astute calculations of the aristocratic Mrs Clerimont, played with resolute common sense by Michael Simkins and Jessica Turner, to restore order.
There is good support generally, including from Daisy Badger’s Lady Landsworth, Tam Williams as a forelock-flipping Sir John (“all wig and no brains”), Susan Salmon’s La Basset, and Leo Wringer and Solomon Israel as the Clerimont brothers, although all are repeatedly upstaged by two dashing Irish wolfhounds.
Reviewer: Colin Davison