Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, nr. Newbury
Opened 23 July, 1996

As one of the minority who really rather liked Lust, 1993's West End musical adaptation of The Country Wife, the prospect of seeing a similar treatment given to The Beaux' Stratagem sounded more appealing than fearsome. The truth turns out to be around midway between the two poles.

American adaptor and lyricist Robert Sevra is hoist by his own petard in the shape of programme notes which extol the English as a people "whose literary heritage and love of language seem to echo my own." I sincerely hope not; Sevra's love of language manifests in lyrical doggerel such as "In London, dear London, society's laws/Make life for a wife there a cause for applause" and the self-consciously mangled line "Never his bed shall I come near". These and a few other atrocities aside, Sevra's lyrics hark back to a pre-Stephen Sondheim age when poetry in song was a matter of more or less than precisely crafted everyday speech.

His script preserves Farquhar's plot, in which penniless young blades Aimwell and Archer find their plans to marry for money complicated by the onset of actual love, but apart from the occasional "Od's my life" or "'Sdeath" is devoid of period frippery (at one point, he even uses the word "stashed"). The music, written by Lynn Crigler and performed jauntily on piano and cello, is also backward-looking in its reliance on conventional melodic progressions no bad thing in itself, and leading to passages which are often naggingly half-familiar; I am sure that the number "Romance" owes more than a little to "I'll Know" from Guys And Dolls.

If the writers have any pretensions to having created an artwork, Wendy Toye's production is wisely having none of it. We know this is to be a romp from the opening a capella scat-overture, which reveals the cast in a variety of costumes from vaguely period foppishness for the duo of rakehells to leather jackets for a couple of highwaymen and scarlet Lycra for the fickle maidservant; Michael Fleischer's set, too, has a colourful Georgian Play School feel.

Robin Hart as Aimwell is an assembly-line hunk of the kind beloved by casting directors of TV blockbusters, but handles a tune nicely. Anthony Drewe returns to the Watermill after his own musical revue Warts And All several months ago to play Archer; he plainly enjoys musical comedy and has a talent for it, but his smirk is a little too persistent. In general, the women in the cast immerse themselves more deeply in the show than the slightly distanced men: Sarah Jane Hassell and Louise Plowright as the young men's amorous targets Lucinda and Dorinda settle into their roles rapidly after an unsure start, and Jacqueline Charlesworth's performance as innkeeper's daughter Cherry is an uninterrupted delight. The whole affair is serviceably jolly, although it shows little promise of greater things from its creators except perhaps a modicum of humility from Robert Sevra.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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