As Restoration Comedies go, Farquhar's late addition to the canon seems accessible and in many respects rather progressive. His cynicism about the charms of matrimony will resound with many audience members, and the pro-feminist message of being able to love who you wish, with the possibility to escape from an unhappy marriage would have certainly been shocking to his contemporaries.
There is much to praise in Simon Godwin and Patrick Marber's dramaturgy that has helped pull this sometimes saggy text into a stronger context, setting the production firmly in the period where the nature of the comedy and the message resonate the strongest. There is much to juggle in what eventually becomes an ensemble farce, and it's a gift that continues to give right up until the final moments.
We first meet the 'beaux' of the title - Aimwell (a dashing Samuel Barnet) and Archer (an excellent Geoffrey Streatfeild), who poses as his servant. Out of money, the pair are on the prowl for women of means and set their sights on the married Mrs Sullen who is trapped in a loveless relationship, and her sister-in-law Dorinda. As both couples end up falling in love, obstacles to such happy ending continue to grow, including a landlord with a saucy daughter who also has her eyes on Archer, a French Officer who is prisoner at the Inn and a trio of highwaymen who plan to rob the Sullen's estate.
The production takes a while to warm up, with the earlier scenes that shift between a Litchfield Tavern and the home of Mrs Sullen lacking pace, and more importantly, comedy. There is too much groundwork to establish between the characters, with a wider ensemble cast continuing to add to the comedy well into the second act, adding some confusion and extraneous plot additions.
The play feels like an early prototype for the later comedies of Oscar Wilde, with elements of door slamming farce thrown in, giving modern audiences much to relate to within a theatrical context. The piece excels in the wilder moments, with the second act providing much of the quicker, visual humour as the plot accelerates and the overall focus shifts from the granular to a much wider lens.
The language is handled expertly by an outstanding ensemble cast, that will no doubt only settle in with time as the energy and comedy becomes more natural. Susannah Fielding and Pippa Bennett-Warner are suitably coquettish, yet are always in full command of the outcome, providing much of the drive in the courtship as the gentlemen of broken fortune. Rather than coming across as damsels in distress, they are giving full control of the action and instead can be seen to be manipulating the action for their own means, rather than the other way around, which gives this production its edge.
Lizzie Clachan's three story set is impressive yet economical, allowing quick shifts between the two primary settings. There are several moments that seem lost on the vast Olivier stage, and I couldn't help think it would have perhaps been more successful as tightly focussed Lyttelton production. In true National Theatre style Godwin makes use of a folk band to add atmosphere and cover the scene changes, ending the comedy with a company period style musical number.
Although at times you wish for a few more laughs, this is an accessible and layered Restoration comedy that has much to enjoy, in part due to the strengths of the cast and the overall energy of this visually appealing production.
"Godwin’s production maintains a perfect balance between serious comment and exuberant fun. Lizzie Clachan’s set switches neatly between a timbered inn and a galleried country house."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Still, I suspect the whole thing will “bed in” and grow in zest, confidence and even theatrical camp...A perfectly decent summer romp, then. It could just do with being a bit, well, rompier."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"As is almost inevitable with such projects, the pace flags a little at points, but these beaux are well worth hearing out."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard