The Provoked Wife – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: John Vanbrugh

Director: Phillip Breen

Reviewer: James Garrington

Lady Brute is bored. She married in haste and her husband has turned out to be a tedious drunk who’d rather spend time with his friends than with her. So, helped by her niece Bellinda, she decides to spice up her love life by having a dalliance with a younger man – but the nosy and interfering Lady Fancyfull discovers them. Will she reveal all, ruining Lady Brute’s reputation? The lovers desperately try to stay one step ahead of her husband as people hide behind trees to spy on others or hide in closets to escape them. On the way we have cross-dressing, flirting and a lot of fun with a myriad of strands and sub-plots going on at the same time.

Vanbrugh’s script is bursting with comedy, with funny lines, many opportunities to add extra comedy business and a wealth of gloriously obscure but hilarious euphemisms – and director Phillip Breen and the cast work hard to bring out every ounce of humour they can find, working the audience as well as any comedian you’re likely to come across.

Alexandra Gilbreath is Lady Brute, a rôle that is played pretty much straight. She is – she convinces herself – an entirely innocent party stuck in a loveless marriage, until her husband’s drinking and incessant jibes force her to seek solace elsewhere. She feels she has been provoked – and who can blame her, married to the boorish vindictive Sir John (Jonathan Slinger). This is a gem of a rôle for Slinger, who is a master at the art of working the audience with a pause, a knowing look, a sideways glance. Sometimes swaggering, at others prancing or almost dancing he owns the stage as, clothed in his wife’s gown, he one by one flattens members of the Watch – until he discovers his wife’s affair when he becomes transformed into a different character entirely.

Lady Brute’s companion and confidante is her cousin Bellinda (Natalie Dew), nicely played as a straight-talking and forthright character who encourages her friend and tries her best to keep her from being discovered until she finds herself being drawn into the romance too. Their lovers are Constant (Rufus Hound) and Heartfree (John Hodgkinson). Constant comes across as a rather earnest young man, quite straightforward in his love for Lady Brute – the little comedy there is in the rôle is very gentle and underplayed – of the pair Hodgkinson gets the bulk of the humour and he delivers it extremely well.

Caroline Quentin is a nicely grotesque Lady Fancyfull, the self-centred and interfering busybody who will stop at nothing to be the centre of attention, and Les Dennis is here making his RSC debut as Colonel Bully, a very small rôle in this production. Stealing the show is Sarah Twomey as Fancifull’s French maid. Twomey is an absolute delight as the over-the-top stereotyped young Frenchwoman, with most of her dialogue delivered in very rapid French – the actual lines possibly passing many of the audience by, but the meaning is clear, and it’s very funny.

After all the fun on the way the ending of the play is quite weak and contrived – the climax has been reached some time before and it just remains to tie up all the loose ends and bring the multiple strands of plot together. Don’t let that put you off though – it’s a chance to see a rarely-performed and very funny piece, well-delivered by an excellent cast.

Runs Until 7 September 2019 | Image: Pete Le May (c) RSC

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Very funny and well-performed

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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