Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Busy Body, Southwark Playhouse

The tone is set during the prologue. Having swiftly dispensed with Thomas Baker’s condescending original, in which the audience were urged not to run away just because the play they were about to see was by – gasp – a woman, Jessica Swale’s contemporary replacement rattles through a list of the best British female playwrights, from Aphra Behn onwards, referencing everyone from Fanny Burney to Debbie Tucker Green along the way. It’s a lively, witty beginning and one which encapsulates Swale’s approach to the material: honouring the spirit in which it was written while bringing a more contemporary sensibility into play.

Susanna Centlivre belongs fairly near the beginning of that list, once regarded as the ‘second woman of the English stage’ after Behn, she was the kind of brilliant individual who was determined to make her mark regardless of sex, dressing up as a man in order to attend university lectures and going on to write plays that remained popular well into the nineteenth century. The Busy Body – one of her greatest successes – was written in 1709, putting it far earlier in the period than Swale’s last eighteenth century revival – Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem – but she draws from it the same delicious mix of charm and warmth. And though her track record with plays of this era is already well proven, she really excels herself here. This is a joyous, delightful production, directed with a lightness of a touch and with one eyebrow elegantly arched throughout, though – crucially – with affection rather than cynicism.

The play’s structure is far from unfamiliar: two love-plots intertwine, each reflecting the other. In the first, the pretty young heiress Miranda has to fend off the attentions of her amorous guardian, Sir Francis Gripe, while winning the hand of her admirer, Sir George Airey. In the second strand, Isabinda is all but imprisoned by her over-protective hispanophile mother who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy Spanish merchant, even though she is already well and truly smitten with Sir Francis’s son, Charles. Throughout all this, Charles’ friend Marplot, big of heart but low on smarts, acts as the busy-body of the title and his well -meant meddling threatens to scupper both couples’ plans.

The cast – several of whom have worked with Swale before, either on The Belle’s Stratagem or her earlier production of Sheridan’s The Rivals – all display a similar delicacy. The performances are knowing in tone without being too removed. There are plenty of asides and a degree of audience interaction, but these never fracture the world of the production. Each contrivance of plot is approached with suitable energy and conviction. The comic timing and delivery is brilliantly pitched; faces remain straight even when Alexandra Guelff’s Miranda rebukes Marplot for trying to look at her monkey. Michael Lindall is suitably dashing as Charles, investing his character with considerable emotional weight, especially during the scenes with his brusque and dismissive dad, while also embracing all the business with false moustaches and the scaling of invisible walls. Ella Smith, while clearly also revelling in the silliness of some of the writing, is sparkly and coquettish as Isabinda and Cerith Flinn is endearing as the hapless Marplot.

There’s no Beyonce this time, no one is invited to ‘Put a Ring On It,’ instead there are a series of songs composed by Harriet Oughton, with lyrics by Swale, that once again manage to be incredibly clever and funny without being bruisingly postmodern. These musical interludes give the production its spine, its shape, heightening the comedy and generally making the whole exercise even more blissful.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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