Writer: Sir John Vanbrugh
Director: Kate Nelson
Reviewer: Edie R
Sir John Vanbrugh is more famous as the architect of Blenheim Palace than as a dramatist; but the ex-Bastille prisoner and controversial playwright could turn a good Restoration comedy as well. The Provoked Wife, his second play, focused on the options for a good woman trapped in a horrible marriage, and caused a scandal when it was first staged in 1697 with its forgiving attitude to adultery and divorce. The Cobweb Theatre Company’s 2013 production has nothing in it that will shock a modern audience, but plenty of light-hearted comedy and festive good cheer.
The plot charts the progress of Lady Brute (Emilie Robson) and her niece Belinda (Millie Mountain) through the intrigues of love, courtship, scandal and marriage (both well- and ill-advised). Lady Brute is witty, beautiful and extremely tolerant, but is getting fed up after two years of marriage to the aptly named, gloriously unpleasant Sir John Brute (Ferdinand Fehring). Sir John admits her virtues but dislikes her just because she’s his wife: “if I were married to a hogshead of claret, matrimony would make me hate it”, he declares, reasonably.
Lady Brute’s thoughts turn to solacing herself with her admirer Constant (Corinel Burnett), while his dapper friend Heartfree (Adam Park) falls for her niece Belinda. Meanwhile the delusional Lady Fancyfull (James Miller), abetted by her pert French servant Mademoiselle (Maegan Hearons), intrigues to split up the almost-couples, provoking a denouement where five minutes of tension resolve into a more-or-less happy ending.
The cast all give good performances. Ferdinand Fehring and Emilie Robson are a fine double-act as Sir John and Lady Brute: Robson is assured and feisty, while Fehring clearly relishes his character’s pantomime nastiness, and delivers his lines and drunken snores with zest. Lady Fancyfull, too, has more than an element of the panto dame as played by James Miller, and he and Maegan Hearons have lively comic chemistry in their scheming scenes. Millie Mountain is a pretty, witty Belinda, while Corinel Burnett and Adam Park are decent as Constant and Heartfree, though their rôles do lend themselves to woodenness.
Ellen Shand and Kirsty Rennie deserve special praise as the servants Lovewell and Razor: despite having the smallest parts in the play, they raise some of its best laughs with their matching cameos as messengers, badly disguised in Santa beards.
The play is staged in the gorgeous surrounds of Surgeons’ Hall, whose corridors, hung with portraits of men in wigs, feel like an appropriate setting for 17th-century drama. Sarah Paulley’s set design is simple and effective, and brings the audience into close contact with the company at their entrances and exits: we get brushed by Lady Fancyfull’s bustling skirts and have a fine view of Heartfree’s stockings. The set is draped with fairy lights, bumping up the festive feel of a production that opens and closes with carols.
The costumes, designed by Kate Rogers and commissioned for this production from the Queen Margaret University Costume Construction and Design Department, follow the lead of the set and combine a straightforward conception with elegant execution. The actors get dressed onstage; couples are colour-coordinated, and the cut-off above the knee of the women’s billowing dresses gives a cheeky nod to the risqué origins of Vanbrugh’s play.
It’s a very good-humoured production of a decent play, with a festive twist that will leave you in a proper Christmas spirit of merriment.