Writer: Mary Pix
Director: Jo Davies
Reviewer: Katy Roberts
Jo Davies is the third director to pick up the baton in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Spring/Summer 2018 season; a season that, for the first time in the Company’s history, sees the staging of four works directed solely by women. Whilst Maria Aberg and Polly Findlay’s productions are works by famous male playwrights (John Webster and William Shakespeare, respectively), Davies turns the spotlight onto Mary Pix, a woman writing at the same time as William Congreave, and yet, who has, the RSC says, “been written out of history”. If true, then this is an almighty shame, for Jo Davies’ staging of Pix’s The Beau Defeated (reworked here as The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich) is an utter joy from start to finish, and one that deserves pride of place amongst our best-known and beloved Restoration comedies.
Follies tells the story of the titular Mrs Rich (a superb performance by Sophie Stanton), a wealthy widow desperate to endear herself to the great and good of London. Her ultimate goal? The acquisition of a title. She sets her sights on the dashing Sir John Roverhead (Tam Williams), who, unbeknownst to Mrs Rich, has his sights set firmly on her fortune instead, with the help of two conspirators, Mrs Trickwell (a hysterical Sandy Foster) and Lady La Basset (Susan Salmon). Into this heady mix is thrown the rather more naïve Young Clerimont (Solomon Israel), the object of the affections of Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger). However, when Lady Landsworth conspires to determine if the young man’s affections are true by feigning to be a “lady of ill repute”, misunderstandings abound as mischief is made and identities are mistaken.
Sophie Stanton is absolutely terrific in the title role; deliciously wicked, with a searing wit and a flair for the overdramatic, Stanton’s portrayal has the audience in the palm of her hand right from the opening scene until the play’s final moments. Stanton’s excellent facial expressions, coupled with Pix’s fabulously witty dialogue, make for a joyous performance. Tam William has an absolute blast as the fop Sir John Roverhead, relishing in the ridiculousness of the character and playing up his flamboyance for all it is worth. Laura Ellsworthy puts in a wonderfully energetic performance as Mrs Rich’s maid, Betty, frantically racing between her duties to her mistress as she pursues Sir John, whilst also assisting Lady Landsworth with her pursuit of the younger Clerimont brother. Solomon Israel is instantly likeable as the whiney, faintly ridiculous, lovesick younger brother, and Aretha Ayeh is wonderfully girlish and bouncy as Mrs Rich’s effervescent niece, Lucinda. The moment she finally masters her hand fan (the 18th century equivalent of the ‘sassy finger snap’) elicits cheers from the audience. Sandy Foster really comes into her own as Mrs Trickwell (a very apt name!), towards the beginning of Act 2, in one of the most memorable fight scenes to grace the Swan stage – a total hoot! A special mention must go to Lossie and Theia (a Lurcher and Deerhound, respectively), playing the roles of Elder Clerimont’s beloved dogs, Lossie and Theo, in their RSC debut. In the face of the chaos onstage during the play’s second half, as true identities are discovered, the two of them remain wonderfully calm and almost steal the show – eliciting gasps of delight from the audience at every appearance on stage.
Colin Richmond’s set design is beautiful and simple, but hugely effective. A small array of furniture and props dress the scenes, whilst cloth backdrops of renaissance paintings daubed with neon graffiti are an inspired nod towards the clash of “common”, against a (literal) backdrop of wealth and luxury. It is worth mentioning that this Follies is more musical than Pix wrote it – there are two songs in the original text – but that is no criticism. In fact, it is quite the opposite – Grant Olding’s songs do a marvelous job of effortlessly expanding on the characters we come to love by the play’s end, as the action resolves itself. The Company’s musicians – Rebecca Gibson Swift, Claire-Louise Appleby, Rela Spyrou, Judith Zarzycka, James Jones, Kevin Waterman and Tarek Merchant – are a real treat; make sure you get into the Swan auditorium early to listen to them perform before the action starts.
In a world of #timesup and #metoo, it is hugely refreshing to see a production that is not only directed by a woman, and headed up by a fantastic female lead in a cast that has an exact 50/50 male/female split, but one that is taking the work of Mary Pix – a female playwright almost lost to history – and putting it centre stage, firmly back in the spotlight – where it rightfully belongs. A must-see.
Runs until 14 June 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks (c) RSC