Highwaymen with gold chains up their sleeves, frustrated wives, counterfeit priests, fops in disguise and clashings of swordplay. The name might be superficially baffling, the time period an under-loved post-Restoration era, but don’t be fooled – this comedy is an unambiguous crowd pleaser.
Its leads are a pair of ‘beaux’ who’ve frittered away their fortunes on wine, women and scented pocket hankerchiefs. Their ‘stratagem’ to remedy the situation is to entrap rich wives into marrying them and funding their dissolute ways. Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) takes on his rich brother’s identity, and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfield) pretends to be his manservant. Together, they take rooms in a country inn and wait for women to trip into their laps.
Lizzie Clachan’s design loads the stage with a gorgeously weathered pile of painted wooden staircases, ready for these social climbers to ascend to the gilded heavens or to flirt with life below stairs. There are fascinating insights into the goings on at an early eighteenth-century tavern – a lawless place harbouring French prisoners of war and dissembling priests. No one’s quite who they seem to be, in an era where rich men could turn up under any name and be sure of being taken at a coin’s face value.
Fortune-hunting Aimwell finds his match in Dorinda (a rather flat Pippa Bennett-Warner) who’s desperate for a title and stately pile. Her mother Lady Bountiful is the mistress of ten thousand pounds, and dispenses it in the form of sage advice to sickly villagers. She provides her waters to the lovesick Aimwell – cue scatological merriment as he sniffs the yellow-tinged draught.
Meanwhile, Archer torments the landlord’s daughter Cherry with kisses and pinches. Simon Godwin and Patrick Marber’s dramaturgical work transfers words he says to Aimwell in the text into flirtatious hyperbole aimed her way, so that he tells her that “I’ll warrant you read plays, and keep a monkey, and are troubled with vapours!” Amy Morgan as Cherry takes the compliment with wide-eyed pride. It’s all very funny and very silly – a sharply-made concoction packed with one-liners whose zest has only slightly musted in time’s jam cupboard.
But underneath the swashbuckling silliness there are subtler jabs at a society in a moment of change. In 1707 the Restoration’s libertine dealings and sexual frankness were giving way to a new, more sentimental mood. It’s clear that playwright George Farquhar’s sympathies are with mistreated wife Mrs Sullen, not her rakish grotesque of a husband – even when she impersonates Lady Bountiful to tell a visiting old woman to heal her old man’s leg by rubbing it with salt and spices then roasting it on a spit. She’s allowed a happy ending, too, in the form of a divorce that wouldn’t have been granted off the stage for another few centuries. Susannah Fielding is by turns sweet and enjoyably bitter in the part – even if she seems too savvy to ever consent to marry such a mad old sot as her Mr.
This incongruity is at least partly a function of director Simon Godwin’s period-accurate, but slightly sedate approach. His leads are played straight with a minimum of fuss – leaving the eye-rolling comic archetypes that inhabit the smaller parts standing side to side with real people trapped in corsets and pantaloons. The script’s humour might be a clear ancestor of the trouser-dropping ribaldry that went on to bedevil pantomimes or Whitehall farces or sleazy sixties sitcoms, but this production often isn’t allowed to collapse in a mirthful heap of catchphrases and pratfuls that the text suggests.
The second act’s highwayman spectacular is a beautifully managed exception, though, with a slapstick tour-de-force of honeytrap naughtiness. What George Farquhar’s play lacks in poetry, it more than makes up with in its joyful tumble of social satire, fast-paced adventure, and just the slightest hint of heart.
Part of the Travalex £15 season at the National.