Whether it be a desire for escapism or just an excuse to gawp at some ludicrously pretty costumes, the taste for Restoration Comedy seems to be on the increase. Earlier this year, Sheffield Crucible staged a revival of Congreve’s The Way Of The World, and now we have Polly Findlay’s production of William Wycherley’s notorious The Country Wife.
In fact, its notoriety is such that the play was effectively banned until the 1920s, as audiences were deemed too fragile to deal with its central themes of cuckolding and infidelity and a text stuffed with more innuendo than your average Carry On film. These days, it would take a particularly sensitive soul to be shocked by anything on display here.
In fact the Carry On tradition is a good parallel to make with Wycherly’s bawdy romp. This is a play in which the central character fakes a case of impotence in order that the local ladies will let their guard down in his presence and he can duly have his wicked way with them. It’s a world in which a man pretends his wife is a ‘homely, plain girl’ to keep the local womaniser away from her, and a world where the characters’ names are deliciously literal (Mr Horner is insatiably horny, Mr Pinchwife has his wife pinched away from him, Mrs Fidget…well, you get the picture).
Despite being over 300 years old, Wycherley’s play remains a very funny, bladed piece of writing, with Findlay’s direction lending it a sense of pace and lightness of touch that stops the very many cries of “why Sir, no Sir!” from becoming too tiresome. The double entendres, while mild by today’s standards, still raise a chuckle (especially in the infamous ‘china’ scene), while Findlay handles the darker, slightly misogynistic, change of tone in the second half well.
The large ensemble cast serve the production well. Felix Scott gives Mr Horner a suitably louche, sleazy touch, while Amy Morgan is charming as Margery, the naive Welsh girl – and wife of the title – introduced rather too vigorously to the ways of London life. Oliver Gomm steals pretty much every scene he’s in as the rather over the top, foppish wit Mr Sparkles, but the real stand-out performance is that of Nick Fletcher, who plays Mr Pinchwife with a marvellously subtle touch. Not only does he display superb comic timing, but he conveys Pinchwife’s desperation beautifully; there’s a suitably chilling tone to the scene where he threatens to stab out his wife’s eyes with a penknife.
Helen Goddard’s costumes are beautifully designed, with an abundance of wigs, high-heels and powdered make-up (and that’s just for the male members of the cast), and as ever with the Royal Exchange, the in-the-round stage design is minimal but very effectively so.
This is in many ways a very straightforward production, but it’s all the better for being gimmick free and sticking, as much as possible, to the original Restoration spirit. There are moments, especially towards the end, that seem to drag a bit, especially compared with the lightning pace of what’s come before, but overall this is an accessible, enjoyable production, broad in the best way.