When the worst thing about a play is the name – and, let’s be fair, it is over 300 years old – then you can hope to have a jolly evening at the theatre, and so it proves in the case of the National’s exceedingly fun revival of George Farquhar’s post-Restoration comedy. Combining a lightly feminist message with the sort of jolly and full-bodied acting that, thankfully, doesn’t simply feel like pantomime mugging, this is the first certifiable hit of the new Rufus Norris regime, and a credit to all of those involved.
The plot is too complex (as well as too silly) to summarise to any degree of satisfaction, so essentially all you need to know in advance is that it revolves around two ‘gentlemen of broken fortune’, the aptly named Archer (Geoffrey Streatfield) and Aimwell (Samuel Barnett), who have wound up in Lichfield, embarrassed for money after having spent thousands of pounds in the pleasures of London life. The idea of marriage to a wealthy heiress appeals, and the Bountiful family might provide such a match. But can assorted highwaymen, butlers, Frenchmen and innkeepers get in the way, or will the path of true love indeed run smooth?
Simon Godwin’s production is sensibly pitched just this side of absurdity, and is blessed with at least three sublime central performances. As the dashing yet ridiculous Archer, Streatfield (so good in the recent My Night With Reg) manages to be thoroughly contemporary, not least in a ridiculous dance sequence during which he seems every bit as baffled as the audience. He’s matched by the ever-excellent Susannah Fielding as the frustrated Mrs Sullen, an unhappily married woman whose deep distress at having become her boorish husband’s chattel gives the often very silly goings-on a surprising amount of emotional depth, especially in a bravura speech of hers at the end of the first half. And as the put-upon servant Scrub, Pearce Quigley delivers a comic tour de force that channels the late Peter Cook’s EL Wisty to hilariously unexpected effect.
As has become usual with the National (and others), there’s been some editing and light reworking (Godwin and Patrick Marber are given the ambiguous credit ‘Dramaturgy’), but a cursory glance at the original text reveals just how many of the excellent jokes and thoroughly contemporary-seeming situations belong to the original play, which is, for my money, even better than his more famous farce The Recruiting Officer. It might be, as a particularly outlandish song tells us, ‘a trifle’, but it’s a splendidly entertaining one as well, and guaranteed to cheer up a summer evening.
The Beaux’ Stratagem at The National Theatre until 20th September 2015. Running time approximately 2 hours 40 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.