Joshua Harris reviews the new restoration comedy at the Royal Exchange Theatre, The Country Wife
Four out of five stars
As a drama student and avid theatre goer for many years, it is with some shame that I admit that, before The Country Wife, I had never seen a piece of theatre in the round. Now that my round virginity has been broken however, I have grown quite attached to the format. It produces a far more intimate relationship between the audience and the performers, which is perfect for a play full of asides and small nods and winks to the audience. And just such a play is William Wycherley’s The Country Wife.
Written in 1675 and transported, powdered wigs and all, into the Twenty-first Century by director Polly Findlay, the plot makes Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors seem blissfully straightforward. The womanising cad, Mr Horner, returns from a trip to France with a devilish plan to seduce the entire female population of London by pretending to be a eunuch. Meanwhile, the well-meaning but possessive Mr Pinchwife has just returned to London with his newlywed country wife, Margery, whom he keeps locked up for fear that she will fall into the clutches of Mr Horner, which, of course, she inevitably does.
Meanwhile, Mr Pinchwife’s sister Alithea, who is engaged to loveable moron Mr Sparklish, is being pursued by Mr Harcourt, friend of Mr Horner, goaded on all the while by her maid Lucy. Keeping up? I haven’t even mention the Squeamish family yet, or the Dainty-Fidgets!
There were points where I found myself going “wait, what? Who’s that now?” That said, it’s a testament to the cast and the production that I never completely lost track of the various plot-threads. I’d rather be in a state of bemused, confused enjoyment than being patronised by characters spelling out every twist and turn to me. The acting is solid throughout. Special mention should be made for Oliver Gomm, who throws himself into the role of the oafish Mr Sparklish with Gusto. Amy Morgan, the titular “country wife” possesses naivety and childishness, coupled with a divine Welsh accent. She is so wonderful you just want to run onto stage and give her a hug!
The set, designed by Helen Goddard, is a master class in effective simplicity, all chintz armchairs and wig stands. Complete with running wine taps and a sort of antler chandelier, nothing ever seems overcrowded or unnecessary. Set changes are accompanied by Jimi Hendrix riffs played on screeching violins, a nice little reminder of the contemporary edge the production is putting on the story.
All in all, if you like your comedies intelligent, relentless, bawdy and, above all, round, then The Country Wife is definitely worth a look.
The Country Wife runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until October 20th