The Country Wife – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: William Wycherley

Director: Luke Fredericks

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Jealousy and the perils of a deceptive reputation drive William Wycherley’s oft-revived 1675 Restoration classic The Country Wife, as intermarital shenanigans are covered-up with a thin veil of modest, virtue, and even reputed impotence. Luke Fredericks new production for Morphic Graffiti at Southwark Playhouse which amusingly relocates the action to the 1920s, sweeps aside any suggestion of morality and makes a case for the play’s essential silliness.

Noted lothario Harry Horner returns from France and begins a rumour that he’s now a eunuch, an elaborate ruse to seduce even more women without arousing the suspicions of their husbands. Amidst a number of affairs, Horner casually remarks on the beauty of the new Mrs Pinchwife. Margery, just arrived from the country with her jealous husband, which sets in motion a train of comical events that affect the love lives of all around them.

Directed by Fredericks, this new production of The Country Wife utilises its Bright Young Things theme extremely effectively, suggesting the fundamental wildness of the characters and young carefree lifestyle they enjoyed in London. Stewart Charlesworth’s set and costume design instantly evoke the spirit of the 1920s using plenty of slinky materials and a flexible but minimal set with nicely observed period touches including changing art works and even a gramophone.

Fredericks keeps the action moving fairly swiftly, breaking up the text in places, even changing location mid-scene which does create a whirlwind sense of activity that sweeps-up the characters. At times, these alterations interrupt the flow, and begin to feel like a succession of too rapid scenes that distracts from the drama rather than commanding our attention, but the inventive approach to the scene changes are a rare highlight – a neon-lit bohemian party that mixes Charleston moves with modern music including Lady Gaga, Cindy Lauper and Britney Spears all given a 1920s sound.

For this version of The Country Wife, bawdy is the watchword and while there is a welcome sense of female lust driving the plot and controlling the men, the focus is largely on the innuendo-laden aspects of the text, comedy sex scenes and plenty of cheeky winks. It’s a lot of fun at times, full of larger-than-life performances, with some well-staged comic moments including a great scene in which Margery tricks her husband into posting the wrong letter, and another in which the disguised Margery flirts outrageously with Horner. Yet, the wit of Wycherley’s text, as well as his more subtle satirical comments are lost in the frenzy, and they are missed.

In the lead role, Eddie Eyre has the reasonably difficult task of playing a character who doesn’t develop and essentially continues untouched by the events of the story. Eyre brings a charisma to the role, as well as the arrogance and dismissiveness of a man who believes he holds a particular kind of societal power, but it is also interesting to see how objectified the character has become by the end, preyed on by desperate women rather than seducing them.

Nancy Sullivan and Siubhan Harrison give stand-out performances as Margery and her sister-in-law Althea, both spending much of the play attached to the wrong man. Sullivan has a smiley blankness as Margery, conveying her empty-headedness while also charting her growing knowledge of London customs expressed in her behaviour and dress. Harrison meanwhile is the only performer to offer an emotional connection with her role as a sensible and sensitive woman unable to face her true feelings. Richard Clews increasingly exasperated Pinchwife also treads an interesting line between complete buffoonery and surprising sympathy that make his scenes very entertaining.

A tad too long at around 2 hours and 45 minutes, this isn’t the most highbrow version of A Country Wife but there are plenty of good ideas here. Morphic Graffiti have taken a fresh and lively approach to adapting a classic play, and while the gamble does sacrifice some of the play’s richer wit, there is still enjoyment to be had in the focus on cheeky fun.

Runs until 21 April 2018 | Image: Darren Bell

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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