Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Technical Hitch at the Haymarket

I looked at my watch. 7.45pm. The show was supposed to have started fifteen minutes ago, yet the safety curtain was showing no signs of rising. Hmph. The last couple of days had been really draining and un-fun and I found myself making involuntary grumpy noises. Just as I was starting to ponder exactly when I had turned into my mother, a nervous-looking, black-clad behind-the-scenes person was shoved on stage. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re having a few problems with the sound.” The rest of the audience began to make grumpy noises of their own. She disappeared for a few minutes, before returning, looking even more apprehensive. “I’m afraid we’ve not been able to fix it. But we’re going to go ahead with the show anyway.” As the house lights finally fell, the grumpy noises reached a crescendo…

OK, let’s backtrack a bit.

Theatre: Haymarket. The one with the interior that looks like Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel just mated with Versailles. My Great Aunt would adore it; she’s never gone in a room she didn’t think could be improved by a bit of gold leaf and some cherubim.

Play: Jonathan Kent’s new production of William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, last encountered, by me at least, on an A Level theatre outing, some ten (ten!) years ago.

A swaggering Toby Stephens plays the main character Horner. A known cad, the play opens with him conspiring with his doctor to put around a rumour that he is now impotent having picked up something nasty in the trouser-department while overseas (people keep saying "Oh, he's been in France" as way of explanation and then shaking their head sadly as if that explained everything). Horner has realized that his new found eunuch status will allow him to spend time with other men's wives un-chaperoned, something he intends to take full advantage of. His scheme is rather undermined however when the innocent young wife of his insanely jealous and over-protective friend Pinchwife develops a huge crush on him.

The production looks fantastic, on aesthetic terms alone it’s a winner; I loved Paul Brown's perspective-skewing sets, in bright blues and brighter pinks, doors receding into the distance. The outfits are rather wonderful too, blending historical and contemporary elements to striking effect – the men, for example, wear stunning silk frock coats over super tight jeans and billowing shirts.

Unfortunately the rest of the production struck me as rather muddled, a lot of thought and attention has gone into the surface elements but the dark heart of this tale of the corrupting tug of the city has been overlooked, glossed over in every sense. The farcical elements of the plot have been played up to the point of pantomime. It's all smutty asides, suggestive grape consumption and phallic vases. When it should have an edge, when it should get nasty, like when Pinchwife locks up his young wife and threatens to put out her eyes and carve the word ‘whore’ in her face with a pen-knife, well, it fails to have any impact. The audience greet these moments with the same level of laughter as when Horner jests of one of his conquests, revealing a secret door to his bedroom, that “I’m going in round the back” (this witty play on words is repeated a further couple of times for good measure; well, you wouldn’t want a joke of that quality to just get one airing, would you?)

The lack of shock-factor was partly down to the casting of David Haig as Pinchwife. He’s a great actor and can do panic and exasperation with ease, but is less good at conveying menace. However the real fault is with the decision to push forward the bawdy comedy at the expense of the play’s complexities. I also had problems with Fiona Glascott’s performance as Haig’s young wife. I found her, with her foot stamping tantrums, simply too childish and conversely not nearly innocent enough for the role, a bit too breathy and calculating for my liking. Still the production kept me entertained, kept me laughing, and for all the fuss they made at the start, the missing music in the first half was barely noticeable (they fixed it in time for the second act).

It did, however, take me an absolute age to realize that the music the cast take their bows too was a period-appropriate reworking of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

There was also a cameo by a Real Live Bunny in a hutch, though this clearly doesn’t top The Rose Tattoo’s scene-stealing goat moment in regards to pointless use of animals onstage.


Anonymous said...

Toby Stephens plays a character called Horner? That's all I need to know, I'm sold...

Sal said...

it's between this or the Coward at the National for my free night in London on Thursday - what do you reckon?

Interval Drinks said...

Well, I've not seen the Coward yet, though these chaps clearly enjoyed it - so I can't really say. This production is lots of fun though, I'll give it that and it does look lovely, I just thought it would have benefited from being a bit - I don't know - nastier. It was just a tad too jolly for my liking.