Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 21 December, 2007

Fanny (Frances) Burney (1752-1840) has long been admired for her novels, journals and letters, but of her seven plays only one turgid verse tragedy was ever, briefly, staged during her lifetime. Her comedies A Busy Day and The Woman Hater may never have even been shown to another person, and only came to light with the examination of her papers in the mid-20th century. Thus it is that the Orange Tree now presents the world première of a 205-year-old play.

On the basis of this work Burney may stand not equal with, but certainly in the company of, the likes of Goldsmith and Sheridan; the latter was ready to produce Burney's earlier satire The Witlings until her domineering father argued for its suppression. She enjoys deft caricatures of assorted character types, and constructs increasingly improbable situations culminating in an episode in which everyone encounters and is ultimately reconciled with everyone else by chance in a wood.

The misogynist of the title is Sir Roderick, jilted many years ago by a woman who is now the book-loving dilettante Lady Smatter. Repudiating the society of females, he cut off even his own sister when she had the temerity to marry, although the marriage foundered shortly after the birth of a daughter. Roderick now plans to settle his estate upon distant relative young Jack on the condition that he similarly abjure the sex; Jack, however, has eyes for a young lady recently arrived in the village with her mother...

Without going into too much detail, we see wooings real and imagined for love, gain, whim, security, flattery and/or spite; Jack and his scatterbrained father more than once encounter each other paying court to the virtuous Sophia, while Sir Roderick is later visited to his consternation by a succession of girls claiming to be his long-lost niece. The dramatic engineering works a treat, although for much of the first half it seems as if the title character and his concerns are going to be lost amid the various romantic complications.

Much of the characterisation is similarly successful... sometimes, I suspect, more so than Burney herself intended. For instance, the airheaded caperings of the fake Sophia (who does not at first know that she's a fake) are so much more compelling to an audience than the pious nobility of the real one, even before Jennifer Higham further animates the former with a twirling, bouncing vivacity; Amy Noble is left to be beautiful but uninteresting. As their parents (or pretended parents), Michael Elwyn and Joan Moon each exhibit the intense, sentimental virtue that makes so much of the period's literature so dull; they are bad enough alone (at one point Elwyn's Mr Wilmot exhorts his passion, "Nay, throb not so violently!"), but when the pair meet up again, the only dynamism exhibited is by one's credulity and patience ricocheting off the walls at high velocity. Astute cutting of these plonkings, and of perhaps 50–60% of Lady Smatter's uncertainly attributed quotations (never a joke in danger of passing unnoticed), would form a significant portion of the half-hour that could usefully be shaved from the current three-hours-plus running time.

Nevertheless, Sam Walters' production bobs along, with characters costumed in keeping with the modernity of their world-views: Jack (Dudley Hinton), Levi's 501s; his father (David Gooderson), cardy and slippers; Sir Roderick (Clive Francis), smoking cap and monocle. And ultimately Burney casually subverts the whole genre: at the denouement, it is the older characters who in Walters' staging at least are given all the stage time, with the youngsters pairing off perfunctorily with a wordless kiss each.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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