The Country Wife

Wed 16th – Sat 19th May 2012

reviews

Sophie Klimt

at 23:17 on 16th May 2012

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Having spent weeks revising “The Country Wife” in preparation for my finals, I was excited at the prospect of seeing a production, and with what luck! the very evening before my exam. I wasn’t disappointed – The Univ Players have brought Wycherley’s infamous play to life in a way dusty old books never could. For although wildly popular when first performed, the play was relegated to the page due to its licentious nature. It is easy to see why; the obvious pun on the female anatomy in the title alone would have been enough to send Victorian theatregoers into a moralistic frenzy, especially if they could have seen a production like this one, which revels so deliciously in its crudity. There were many laughs, but these took quite a while to warm up – this is through no fault of the production, but more a sign that this play, which relies so much on witty wordplay in 17th century language, has not aged as well as we – and the Univ Players – might have hoped. Too often a line had to be eased along by the aid of hand gestures pointing at the crotch, or rump-slapping, or some combination of the two. James Skinner as Harcourt made the most sense of these often cumbersome lines, making them sound like modern English through his tone and gesture. But there were many other fantastic performances, such as Andrew Laithwaite as Horner, who managed to remain charming even as we watched him juggle four women, the adorably short-sighted Edward Lewis as Sir Jasper and the talented Claire Rammelkamp as his hilariously immodest wife (her circle of women were absolutely fantastic), and Lazlo Barclay as Sparkish, whose well-meaning idiocy got many of the biggest laughs of the night. I particularly enjoyed Zippy Woolfson’s all-too-brief appearance as Old Lady Squeamish, replete with wonderful facial expressions. The actors are not the only ones who should be commended – director Esme Hicks hasn’t missed a trick in getting every last laugh out of the script, and the simplistic set looked wonderful amid the gardens. I would say, however, that when the programme suggests coming “wrapped up warm”, you should wrap up warmer – the temperature dropped so much as night fell that the last chunk of the show suffered as the audience grew colder. Perhaps a bit of script-cutting should have been exercised, but nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and I’m sure I will have this raucous production in mind as I sit in Exam Schools tomorrow.

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Karl Dando

at 23:27 on 17th May 2012

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Wycherley’s play, once banned for over a century for its bawdiness, can seem initially dated: dick jokes can hang limp when the audience struggle with the language, and that seemed initially the risk here. Thankfully though, the buoyant enthusiasm of this production soon seduced the audience into appreciating, despite the evocative elegance of the excellent costumes, the timelessness of smut. The appeal of the Restoration comedies is the appeal of the saucy postcard or Carry On film, and this show is driven accordingly by a quality cast of cartoonish performances: Andrew Laithwaite swaggers with due smarm as the contemptuous-but-charismatic ‘Machiavel in love’ Mr Horner, Lazlo Barclay splutters like a nerdy candle as Mr Sparkish, and Edward Lewis turns in a sweetly (sym)pathetic performance as the oblivious cuckold Sir Jaspar. Claire Rammelkamp is particularly notable as a deeply accomplished Lady Fidget, squeaking and swooning with boundless enthusiasm, and flanked by Rachael Massey and Nadia Odunayo as Dainty and Squeamish the three actors are a welcome presence whenever they appear.

These sorts of plays were heavily reliant upon a proto-screwball quickfire contest of wits, and unfortunately the staging in this instant undercut that aspect somewhat: the stage area seems rather too large, and consequently the flurry of a back-and-forth was too often punctuated by a vaguely awkward silent transition as the characters walked offstage and on. The ambient presence of live musicians at the beginning and end was a nice touch, though it perhaps might’ve eased these transitions to make more use of music during the show. It is worth noting too that the second half seemed to drag somewhat compared to the rollicking pace of the first, and more extensive cuts might be suggested, though admittedly had the night not bought such a drop in temperature this might’ve seemed less a concern.

Such criticisms though are minor: this production is definitely recommended. James Skinner communicates best the life in the language as Harcourt, and Olivia Peacock’s Alithea impresses with a poised performance in what might’ve been a comparatively unsatisfying role as one of the few straight (wo)men, but finally the delight of the play is in the ensemble, and the ensemble is a success.

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