In the early 1700s, Derry-born George Farquhar was one of the most successful comic playwrights, his writing reaching it's peak in 1706 with THE RECRUITING OFFICER and in 1707 with THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM. Tragically, he was dead two months after the latter opened, aged only 30.
Farquhar always struggled financially - in 1703 he even married an older woman who had led him to believe was wealthy only to discover the reverse after the ceremony. His friend, the Irish actor Robert Wilkes, visited him at the start of 1707 and found him again in penury and badly ill. Wilks gave him money and suggested writing a play, the result was THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM, it's success being even more remarkable bearing in mind the condition it was written under.
I had never seen it before so was looking forward to the new production at the Olivier. I ultimately found it a little too wearing for it's own good but Farquhar's imagination and sense of fun shine through. Bearing in mind Farquhar's personal troubles, the main plot could not have been more relevant to him but equally topical to us 308 years later.
Two London friends Aimwell and Archer are in a jam. They are down to their last £200 and have fled to the provinces to escape the shame of their near penury. However they have a plan: they will tour provincial cities, in each new one swapping roles as master and servant, until they each find a wealthy woman to marry so they can return to London again and use her money to live on.
They arrive in Lichfield and quickly discover that up at 'the big house' lives wealthy (and unmarried) Dorinda along with her mother Lady Bountiful, her brother the dissolute Squire Sullen and her sister-in-law Kate. Mrs Sullen is originally from London and is discovering her marriage to a boorish husband is an unhappy trap.
A glimpse of Aimwell at church gets Dorinda interested so Mrs Sullen invites 'servant' Archer to their house to find out who his master is. They don't get much out of him but the visit results in an instant attraction between Kate and Archer. Add into the mix the two Londoners being mistaken for highwaymen which leads to a real highwayman threatening them, a French officer held prisoner in the Londoner's Inn, an Irish priest in disguise as a French priest, a miserable servant and a swaggering barmaid and you have the makings of a 'romp'.
Farquahar's text has been re-jigged by playwright Patrick Marber to make it punchier and to also include several folk music moments. Director Simon Godwin has ramped up the farcical runnings around but this is sadly to the detriment of the wordplay which is sometimes thrown away hurriedly to run up and down another flight of stairs.
What the production does get right is Lizzie Clachan's ingenious standing set which cleverly transforms from the tatty Lichfield Inn to the refined decorations to the country home of Lady Bountiful and the Sullens. Michael Bruce's folky musical interludes are fun and usually include a musician popping up somewhere on the multi-level set, Archer's 'trifle' song in particular is annoyingly catchy!
The performances were mostly good but I found Pippa Bennett-Warner's Dorinda badly performed, her amateurish strangled twittering of the lines driving me to distraction. It was all the more pronounced next to the delightful Mrs Sullen of Susannah Fielding.
Fielding is an actress who I have not always liked before but here she sparkled, her high spirits and teasing sense of humour mitigated by her sadness in being trapped in a loveless marriage. It was a role that Maggie Smith made a huge success in when the National Theatre was based at the Old Vic and while Fielding was not in that class, she captured well the tears behind the joy.
As Aimwell, Samuel Barnett seemed oddly muted but that could possibly be that he was playing opposite the human-Catherine-Wheel that was Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer. Fresh from his triumph as the outrageous Daniel in MY NIGHT WITH REG, Streatfeild was a sheer delight as Archer,a dynamo of physical energy, be it running up and down stairs, dancing, sliding across the stage and his delivery of his saucy lines was as frantic but paced well enough to get the best laughs.
He was complemented by fine supporting performances from Lloyd Hutchinson as Boniface the grubby landlord of the Inn, Amy Morgan as his feisty daughter Cherry and Richard Henders was needlingly nasty as the appropriately named Sullen. But the best supporting performance was the always reliable Pearce Quigley as the depressed servant Scrub. Pining for the capricious maid Gypsy and hating himself for it, Quigley was a comic delight.
On the whole I did enjoy the production which was shot through with good humour but finding space for Farquhar's plea for common sense in relationships as illustrated in the final scene when Sullen and Kate state their unhappiness with each other and both agree to go their separate ways.
Here is the trailer which includes the catchy trifle song!