“A man dare not play the tyrant in London, because there are so many examples to encourage the subject to rebel.”
It may be The Beaux’ Stratagem but it is Mrs Sullen’s play. The most striking thing about Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s final Restoration comedy is its determinedly proto-feminist stance as Mrs Sullen – an independently wealthy woman now desperately unhappily married – is given surprising agency to express herself in a meaningful way and attempt to extricate herself from her situation. And in Susannah Fielding’s superbly silken performance, she’s exquisitely played as an almost tragicomic figure, endlessly entertaining in the raucous romping around but as Jon Clark’s lighting picks her out at the end of each act, capable of holding the entire Olivier theatre’s hearts in her hands.
The beaux ain’t too bad either. Farquhar’s plot centres on their attempts to marry into money after squandering their fortunes in London. Hoping news of their disgrace hasn’t reached the provinces, they head north and stop off in Lichfield, pretending to be master and servant, where their attentions fall on a rich young heiress and her unhappily married sister-in-law. Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer are a witty pair of fellows indeed, with a cracking line in beautifully cut overcoats too, as their avaricious adventures are soon overturned by amorous attentions as they can’t help but fall head over well-turned heel for their marks.
Life is never that simple in a Restoration comedy though and our beaux must do literal and metaphorical battle with the likes of Jane Booker’s Lady Bountiful, Chook Sibtain’s dashing highwayman, Lloyd Hutchinson’s eagle-eyed landlord, Amy Morgan’s appealing barmaid, Timothy Watson’s would-be chansonnier of a Count and many more beside, in Lizzie Clachan’s handsomely appointed set which does an effortless and effective job of quickly switching between the two key locations. And everyone has to do battle with the outrageously scene-stealing brilliance of Pearce Quigley as the ale-swigging, man-kissing, trifle-inspiring servant Scrub, whose every utterance is to be cherished.
In short, it is a huge amount of fun. A crowd-pleasing romp to be sure, which should settle the nerves of anyone discomfited by Norris’ opening gambit of Light Shining… and Everyman, but one suffused with enough intelligence by Godwin’s invigorating approach, which should rightly make Fielding even more of a star than she already is after her revelatory Portia for Rupert Goold. And with live musical accompaniment led by Richard Hart’s excellent band and composed by Michael Bruce and some cracking swordplay by Kev McCurdy, it’s a mightily enjoyable piece of theatre.