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'Scandaltown' review — clever Restoration comedy quickly wears thin

Scandaltown is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 14 May.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Does Mike Bartlett ever sleep? Possibly not, judging from the dramatist’s third London opening in quick succession, even if one of them, Marianne Elliott’s illness-plagued West End revival of Cock, is a play first seen in 2009. And to his credit, Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith – home to a superb pre-pandemic revival of Bartlett’s onetime Royal Court play Love, Love, Love – is as far removed from the angsty Cock as both plays are from The 47th, his ill-focused if well-acted fantasia at the Old Vic that has brought Bertie Carvel barnstorming back to the stage as Donald Trump.

His newest play doesn’t offer as singularly meaty an acting opportunity, though Rachael Stirling (an alumna of the Love, Love, Love revival) does get a second-act entrance to die for, rather like Carvel’s appearance at the top of his play. A Restoration comedy set in the modern age, Scandaltown is well enough served by a bustling, vigorous production from Rachel O’Riordan, the Lyric’s artistic director. But it suffers from an on-the-nose thinness that wears out its welcome, however clever some of the japery may be in a Private Eye-inflected kind of way.

The fact is, Restoration, a little-seen playwriting genre, always comes with the caveat that what you see is what you get. How can it be otherwise when characters are defined by their names, which tend to lock performers into an approach to the part that is about surface, not substance. What room for maneuver is there? Not a lot.

The ravishing Stirling, for instance, plays Lady Susan Climber – get it? – a socially ambitious Londoner with cascading hair amid an era in which social media gets a workout as well: A second character goes by the name Hannah Tweetwell and is played full-on by Aysha Kala. The plot itself involves the no less signally-named Phoebe Virtue (Cecilia Appiah, suitably dewy-eyed). Keen to brave that depraved metropolis otherwise known as London to rescue her brother Jack (the charismatic Matthew Broome, making a notable professional debut) from its various, um, enticements, she finds a world given over to sex, drugs, and, yes, scandal. That word is itself the defining feature of a populace ravenously on the make, whether between the sheets or at a Netflix ball. Kinnetia Isidore's sizzling sequence of costumes are to the current fashion perfectly born.

The best, it seems, one can hope for is to have “resilience in f-cking buckets,” or so we’re told in no uncertain terms, and to at least have a good time gallivanting whilst decency does a nosedive. “The world is a terrible place, full of evil people like Andrew Neil,” a Black postman says near the start, a comment that had me laughing out loud in its reference to the fame-loving British news personality. That same actor, Chukwuma Omambala, doubles adroitly as Sir Dennis Hedge, a working-class lad made good who, like everyone else, keeps his eye on the prize.

Pride of place amid a hardworking cast belongs to Stirling and, among the men, to Richard Goulding, a Tony-nominated alumnus of Bartlett’s London and Broadway hit King Charles III (he played Prince Harry). Cast here as the poshly spoken Matt Eton, a Tory whose educational provenance is evident from his name, Goulding is in grand form as a sexual explorer of sorts who may have studied politics and philosophy at university but finds himself in the landscape of commedia dell’arte. His title, Secretary of State for Procurement, is in itself quite droll, and one only wishes Tory grandee Michael Gove were still around to opine on the much-missed BBC arts wrap-ups he used to do on Friday nights so that he could pass opinion on a character clearly drawn to some degree from him and Boris Johnson.

The cloud-capped set from the design team Good Teeth encourages us to view all this at a featherweight, fantastical level, and so we do, even when a bit more genuine bite might be welcome. Bartlett’s writing is funniest in passing snippets – a character described as “old and frail” turns out to be all of 49 – than in the gathering pace of a satirical pastiche whose presentational mock-seriousness starts to pall over time. (Also a hoot: a socialist who speaks of being as “left as luggage.”) You’ll smile plenty during the overlong 2 and a half hours, but after a while, the grin may start to congeal as you are left wishing for something more.

Scandaltown is at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre through 14 May. Book Scandaltown tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Ami Okumura Jones and Chukwuma Omambala in Scandaltown. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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