Restoration comedy returns to the London stage in Simon Godwin’s fresh and assured production of the final play by the Irish playwright George Farquhar, The Beaux Stratagem (Olivier Auditorium at the National Theatre).
The ‘Beaux’ of the title, Aimwell and his friend Archer are two charming dissolute young men who have blown their fortunes in giddy London. Shamed and debt-ridden, they flee to provincial Lichfield. Their ‘Stratagem’ is to marry for money. Lodged at the local inn, posing as master and servant, they encounter a teeming variety of human obstacles: a crooked landlord, a fearsome highwayman, a fervent French Count, a maid on the make, a drunken husband, a furious butler a national healer and a strange turbulent priest.
But their greatest obstacle is love. When the Beaux meet their match in the high-born Dorinda and Mrs Sullen they are most at risk for in love they might be truly discovered.
Although written in 1707, the play has a deliciously modern comic sensibility with its sharp sometimes suggestive exchanges and its feminist agenda. There is also a frank dissection of a failing marriage and groundbreaking advocacy of divorce (unimaginable at the time).
But be warned: the first 45 minutes see Farquhar establish his story and characters at the ambling pace of yesteryear. Once the plot is fully in motion, the show is propelled forward with great vim and vigour and the play grows in wit and emotional depth as it goes along, never for a minute over-egging the comedy.
Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfield as the “two gentlemen of broken fortune”, namely Aimwell and Archer, play their roles with great relish and élan, while Pippa Bennett-Warner is a delight as Dorinda and Jane Booker is a truly dignified country gentlewoman in Lady Bountiful.
But the best performance comes from Susannah Fielding as the unhappily married Mrs Sullen. Expressing her desire to find someone to make her boorish husband jealous, she proves herself a mistress of comic timing as she bounds around the stage making us complicit in her mischievous machinations and confiding to the audience the depths of Mrs Sullen’s resentment of her wasted life.
As an added bonus there’s a lively folk-style musical soundtrack by Micheal Bruce, and a banjo player who pops up at just the right moments, drawing various unsuspecting characters into song! And the final song and country dance works a treat!
The Beaux Stratagem
Runs in repertory until Saturday 20 September 2015.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: June 9, 2021