Lyric Hammersmith, London
“This part of our literature is a disgrace to our language and our national character,” thundered Victorian politician, historian and writer Thomas Macaulay in a diatribe against Restoration comedy. It was, he continued, thoroughly indecent: “earthy”, “sensual” and “devilish”.
That’s precisely what attracted playwright Mike Bartlett to the genre. In his new play Scandaltown, Bartlett fashions a contemporary response to those riotous 17th-century comedies that filled London theatres after 20 years of silence under Puritan rule.
In a sense, it’s a companion piece to The 47th, Bartlett’s new drama across town, which draws on Shakespeare to tackle the challenges to democracy that arose during the Trump presidency. Only here it’s the likes of William Wycherley, John Vanbrugh and William Congreve who hover in the wings as Bartlett takes a satirical swipe at the foibles and frailties of our time.
In Bartlett’s 21st-century romp, innocent country boy Jack Virtue (Matthew Broome) has moved to London and instantly fallen prey to all manner of licentiousness. His noble sister, Phoebe (Cecilia Appiah), determines to venture forth in disguise and rescue him. Meanwhile Lady Susan Climber (Rachael Stirling) plots to rescue her fading fortunes through the offices of media influencer and scandalmonger extraordinaire Hannah Tweetwell (Aysha Kala).
As in traditional Restoration comedy, nominative determinism runs riot: characters wield names such as Freddie Peripheral (nobody knows what he does), Rosalind Double-Budget (a thrusting TV producer on the lookout for hackle-raising content) and Matt Eton, a Tory MP — the sort of smooth-faced, hapless fellow sent out on the morning media rounds to brush the most recent government scandal under a carpet of platitudes.
Everyone has an agenda, several have multiple skeletons in the cupboard and, after much unrestrained coupling following a fashionable Netflix masked ball, many have a problem to solve. There’s a great deal of fun to be had: sheaves of tart dialogue, sprinkled with anachronistic turns of phrase, together with bucketloads of innuendo and a dollop of slapstick. Bartlett mixes Restoration tropes with contemporary evils: Tweetwell advises Lady Climber that, to raise her profile, she simply needs to pick any side and provoke outrage in her opponents.
And no one emerges unscathed — neither the glib and pompous MP (Richard Goulding, so plausible he could run for office) nor the earnestly right-on Phoebe (Appiah very droll in her genuine but prim idealism).
But having set a lot of traps, the play doesn’t deliver. It goes off the boil in the second half — there’s a rather obvious scene with the MP’s snarky tabloid journalist wife and the comedy begins to stall. More importantly, the satire isn’t trenchant enough, given the eye-watering imbroglio engulfing contemporary UK politics and the sheer viciousness of the culture wars. And the ending — a broad appeal to everyone to be nicer — again doesn’t feel up to the nastiness of our age.
Much of it is still highly enjoyable, however, and delivered with panache by director Rachel O’Riordan and her cast, all of whom sustain a mischievous, knowing relationship with the audience. Leading the fray is Stirling, who is a joy as Lady Climber. First encountered reclining in a black basque and gold spray-on trousers (Kinnetia Isidore’s costumes are a treat), she brings pinpoint comic timing and even manages to evoke a little sympathy for this imperious, shark-eyed operator. Her pauses, double-takes and facial expressions, when the morning after reveals the true horror of what has occurred, are painfully precise and very funny. If the whole show were as sharp as she is, it would be an absolute blast.
To May 14, lyric.co.uk
Alexandra Palace, London
It’s Regency, rather than Restoration England that’s been put through the mixer for Jeff James’s modern-dress production of Persuasion. It joins a tradition of funny, affectionate dramatic pastiches of Jane Austen’s beloved novels.
Most recent was the glorious Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), which brought a servant’s-eye view to the story of the Bennet sisters. But there was also Laura Wade’s mischievous adaptation of The Watsons (2018), Austen’s unfinished novel, in which the characters started to rebel against the author. And Austentatious, a popular, rambunctious show in which the cast improvise a “lost” novel according to directions from the audience, is returning to London in May.
James’s Persuasion, likewise, mixes respect with irreverence. There’s not a bonnet or bodice in sight as Anne Elliot, persuaded eight years previously to turn down Captain Wentworth, watches on in agony as he returns to the scene and gets precariously close to Louisa Musgrove.
Here the central romcom (will Anne and Wentworth get back together?), the gatherings in Bath and the fateful trip to Lyme Regis all come laced with music from Dua Lipa and Cardi B and are punctuated by playful physicality. As the story unfolds on a giant catwalk, characters simply shove irritating relatives over the edge whenever they drone on for too long and the flirting that precedes Louisa’s dramatic fall from the seawall is conducted in a giant foam-filled pool, with Louisa and Wentworth plunging and sliding through the bubbles.
It simplifies Austen’s subtler observations about her society and there are ideas that jar. But what’s remarkable about the production is how it still delivers that central story. Sasha Frost’s Anne is a smart, observant, sometimes obstinate modern young woman; Fred Fergus’s Wentworth has pride but also vulnerability: the chemistry between them is believable and, ultimately, touching. The contrast between the unhappily married and the unhappily unmarried also comes over sharply, most poignantly in the case of Matilda Bailes as Anne’s increasingly desperate sister, Elizabeth.
It’s striking too how much of Austen’s critique still holds good: yes, women have more options now, but social pressures, financial troubles, snobbery and romantic mishaps remain as common as ever. Fashions change; human beings, not so much.
To April 30, alexandrapalace.com, then Oxford Playhouse May 4-14, oxfordplayhouse.com