It’s a bit of a downer to open a review with bad news, but it would be remiss not to mention the sad and sudden death of actor Alex Beckett yesterday. He had a lady in the front row wiping away tears of laughter as manservant Waitwell. The rest of the week’s performances have been cancelled out of respect and, I assume, logistics.
He was a gem in a sizeable company of them, with this 18th century play by William Congreve being nothing if not an ensemble piece. Centred around a plot to con an ageing aristocrat into a bigamous marriage to secure an inheritance, it’s a farce dressed up as a morality tale to scold the masses about their infidelities and deceptions.
Its superb cast of character actors keep things flowing nicely, even as the play enters its hectoring second half. They wring every last drop of humour from the flowery language, and play up to its sexual politics. Neither the men nor women seem to like each other much in this world, where an offer of marriage is something to be negotiated cautiously, rather than accepted joyfully.
It wasn’t terribly well received when it was first performed – at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn, on the edge of the City – but the quality of the women’s parts are striking. They match the men for laughs, one-liners and dastardly behaviour, something that’s rare in plays from this period.
Haydn Gwynne has buckets of fun as Lady Wishfort, playing the aristo at the centre of the plot as a girlish ingenue, creating a hilarious juxtaposition with the sharp younger women, who are all business.
The set design, all static wooden panels and doors, is slightly lacking in lustre, but the floral costuming more than makes up for it.
Though some of its clever-clever Wildean witticisms have aged badly, the central conceit of romance as power play feels surprisingly modern. Let’s hope the show goes on.