Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 15 May, 1996

Augustan wits John Gay, Alexander Pope and Doctor John Arbuthnot were at least as concerned with lampooning numerous figures in fashionable London society as with writing a well crafted romp in their collaborative play, all but unseen since its original 1717 production. The caricatures are now meaningless, leaving director Richard Cottrell to concentrate fully on the exuberant, absurd plotting. This he does with all the required verve and a keen sense of the ridiculous which, however, never extends to ridiculing the play itself.

The elderly Dr Fossill's hobby of collecting scientific curiosities allows designer Tim Goodchild to go to town on the set: the walls and stage of the Swan Theatre are covered with everything from a glass case containing supposed infant mermaids to a stuffed giraffe. The plot is likewise outrageous, if repetitive: several times Fossill discovers billets doux to his new bride Susannah, several times she executes last-minute stratagems to persuade him of her chastity, and several times her rival suitors Plotwell and Underplot arrive with the intention of cuckolding Fossill before he can consummate the marriage. Plotwell is also patron to Fossill's aspiring playwright niece Phoebe, whose latest work is exposed to general laughter as Gay, Pope and Arbuthnot indulge in the period's obligatory activity of sneering at poetasters.

This brew could be almost as unfunny as The Alchemist with its disguises, confidence tricks and self-conscious humour if the authors' moderate, refined sense of silliness had not been amplified by Cottrell and the clutch of performers who play the absurdity to the full but stops short of pushing it into overdrive. Foremost among them is Richard McCabe as Plotwell, who pulls off a fine bit of Polish-comedy acting in one disguise before reappearing for a gorgeously surreal confrontation with Adam Godley's suave, swaggering Underplot in which the two are costumed respectively as an Egyptian mummy and a stuffed crocodile (can a crocodile swagger? Yes, when Godley is inside it).

Clive Francis, in wild mutton-chop whiskers and Brezhnev eyebrows, splutters energetically as the repeatedly gulled Fossill, and Jane Gurnett as his bride slips in and out of little-girl simpering as if throwing a switch, whilst giving an eloquent display of a skill seldom seen these days: acting with one's skirts. David Foxxe turns in a couple of enjoyably large performances as one of Fossill's fellow oddity-lovers and Sir Tremendous, the critic who demolishes the work of Phoebe (Alison Fiske in acres of turquoise drapery as an enraptured 18th-century "luvvie").

Three Hours After Marriage does not rank as an unjustly neglected major work; its principle raison d'être, a series of scabrous caricatures of particular figures, has long since become incomprehensible to all but scholars. Nevertheless, its more absurd elements are skilfully played up to create a production which is engagingly daft.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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