Well over three hours sat in the Swan Theatre may sound like torture to some: but yesterday afternoon’s matinée of Love for Love went by in a flash; several bangs (and some other wonderful sound-effects (poor cuckoo): delivered with concentrated aplomb by percussionist Kevin Waterman); and almost a continual stream of tears running down my face. Mostly of merriment; but, for one moment, time definitely stood still… – “I would have music. Sing me the song that I like…” – the audience’s laughter was hushed; and the stage was conquered by the beautiful, rich, soulful countertenor of Jonathan Christie. In that one moment, it felt as if the emotional, social, satirical depths of this glorious Restoration comedy – hidden so well under a whole heap of bawdy petticoats – were suddenly laid bare. “No more, for I am melancholy.”
This is what the Swan does best: a company so utterly happy with itself (and so relaxed that they performed an impromptu rendering of Happy Birthday before the play started… – although, with all the actors – and some of the supporting creatives – treading the smooth wooden boards well before the ‘official’ starting time: this is a show for which you need to grab your seat early…); and where everybody (truly everybody) shines. (Special mention must go to Selina Cadell, though: here directing for the RSC for the first time (hopefully of very many); Tom Piper, for yet another subtle, cunning, evocative set design; Rosalind Ebbutt, for the joyous costumes; Claire Windsor for those rip-roaring noises off; and Eliza Thompson for musical perfection – and with a bassoon, too: oh joy of joys!)
Okay: not all of the gags work all of the time – but, there is a self-awareness (an artful stupidity overlaying stunningly intelligent artistry) here that renders them simultaneously both funny and forgivable.
It therefore feels wrong to just list a handful of the actors, as is the norm: so here’s a rundown (up, really) of the cast list, with my brief reasons for mentioning each and every one of them. Daisy Ashford, as Nurse – simply because she brought a light to proceedings every time she appeared (all too briefly). Jonathan Broadbent as Tattle – the “half-witted beau, vain of his amours” – for that quiff; genial pomposity of the highest order; and second-best face-puller. Robert Cavanah: as “free-speaker” Scandal – a wonderful, authoritative representation of William Congreve himself, I think. Jonathan Christie, for that voice; and a presence that still haunts me. Daniel Easton, as Ben “Ben!” Legend: the Captain Pugwash of salty metaphor (and a mean dancer, too)! Michael Fenton Stevens – not enough lines! – as the semi-bumbling Buckram (and best warm smile of the night). Hermione Gulliford, as the double-dealing, arch Mrs Foresight: for her wicked wit. The superbly weighty – but finally duped – Nicholas Le Prevost, as Sir Sampson Legend. (I’m thinking of changing my name: “Sampson’s a very good name for an able fellow: your Sampsons were strong dogs from the beginning.”) Justine Mitchell, as the shrewd, calculating, man-manipulating Angelica. (If it is anyone’s play, it is hers – and, I think, she demonstrates perfectly that Congreve’s attitude to women is not quite as superficial as one may believe: “You tax us with injustice, only to cover your want of merit.”)
Hywel Morgan, as scrivener Trapland: yet more beaming jollity with every appearance. Carl Prekopp (left, above), as sage servant (and dry, wry, witty foil), Jeremy. (He would make a superb Mosca – a not dissimilar rôle – in Volpone, given the chance.) Jenny Rainsford – she of the long, pink locks and brazen grin – as “silly, awkward, country girl” Miss Prue: bringing the house down every time as the vivacious, lusty bumpkiness. Elliott Ross, as Mr Snap: cheekiness personified. The wonderful Michael Thomas: who captured Foresight – “an illiterate old fellow, peevish and positive, superstitious, and pretending to understand astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, omens, dreams, etc.” – perfectly, and sympathetically. Anna Tierney as Jenny – if only for her charming rendition of “A nymph and a swain”. Tom Turner (centre) – first-best face-puller… – who was born to be the urbane Valentine Legend (our fault-filled hero); and who does a mean, rip-roaring act as a convincing madman (cuckoo): “’Tis strange! But I am Truth, and come to give the world the lie.” Ragevan Vasan, as lucky Robin (and very, very naughty torturer of poor young actors). And last – but certainly not least (and my favourite of the night) – Zoë Waites (right), as the wicked Mrs (although she certainly isn’t in any way) Frail – “a woman of the town”: forming a riotous, very fanny, er, funny, double act with sister Mrs Foresight.
This – on until 22 January 2016 – is the perfect pantomime (with huge, humorous dollops of audience participation) for those of a very insensitive disposition; and I shall be returning (at least once) in the New Year, if for no other reason (apart from being confident that I will be perfectly entertained again) to see what other in-jokes I failed to spot, this time around. (There are knowing – and none-too-subtle – references to concurrent productions Queen Anne and Wendy & Peter Pan, as well as next year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, scattered throughout. But the jokes come so thick and fast that I’m sure I missed many, many more!) Go! You will be “the happiest, merriest men [and women] alive”!