Old Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 4 July, 1997

What, exactly, are whibb-bobbs? I only ask because the word crops up in a graffito on one of John Gunter's backdrops for The Provok'd Wife at the Old Vic. The area represents a tavern wall, on which is scrawled (amongst other altogether less savoury remarks), "Whibb-bobbs sold here," so we may assume bawdy intentions. The OED offers only "whibibbe", an obsolete form of "cubeb", a peppery Javanese berry. So is the anonymous tavern scribbler referring to another kind of spicy Eastern delights, or is the word simply a coinage designed to seem period and louche, but not actually meaning a great deal in itself? If the latter, it serves as a microcosm of Lindsay Posner's production.

For no readily apparent reason, Posner's reading of Vanbrugh's play (staged in its 1726 version) simply feels anodyne: funny but not very funny, dark but not very dark. An uncertainty of mood prevails. Michael Pennington as Sir John Brute rumbles a lot but veers between making the knight an out-and-out monster (as in his drunken attempt at one point to ravish his young wife) and a harmless comic butt: when Brute is apprehended by the Watch in his wife's gown, he blunts the satirical edge of his speeches in female persona and turns in a panto-dame performance. Similarly, Victoria Hamilton pouts and knits her brows tentatively as Lady Brute, but seems less assured of her characterisation than I have ever seen her.

The Provok'd Wife is more sombre than your average gadabout Restoration comedy, but never quite commits itself to exploring fully any of the avenues it opens up: the Brutes' marriage is a catastrophe undertaken for convention's sake, Lady Brute decides finally to requite her long-term suitor Constant (Andrew Woodall) merely to even the score of marital abuse, whilst the Brutes' neighbour Lady Fancyfull indulges her vanity by trying to stymie the match of Tim McInnerny's suave but honest Heartfree and Lady Brute's niece Bellinda (Clare Swinburne) on the grounds that if she cannot have Heartfree, no-one else should. In Posner's production, these shadows do not so much provide depth and contrast as trip up the comic flow.

Nothing, however, interferes with the comic nature of Alison Steadman as Lady Fancyfull: offal dressed as mutton, shrieking like a patrician ancestor of her Mrs Bennet, Steadman gives by far the biggest performance of the evening, but it enjoys no more success than any of the other unresolved portrayals in this blotchy production. And not, to the best of my knowledge, a whibb-bobb in sight.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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