John Vanbrugh’s great 17th-century comedy has again been produced in London with a strong cast. I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at the Barbican in 1996, where Victor Spinetti was phenomenal as ‘Lord Foppington’, so I was looking forward to seeing how these two productions compare, particularly as the RSC’s production was performed in the tiny Pit, and this production by The Royal National Theatre is done on the larger Olivier stage. Personally, I preferred the RSC production, but then I’m probably biased because I love intimate theatres!
This comedy of sexual desires and financial politics has two interconnected stories running side by side. One concerns Lord Foppington, who has recently bought his peerage, but still not content , decides to marry a wealthy county heiress to go with it. However, he is outwitted when his impoverished younger brother, Tom, marries her while pretending to be Lord Foppington! The second concerns Loveless, a ‘reformed’ philanderer who has arrived in London with his loyal wife. However, he is not so loyal!!
In its day, this comedy most probably had the ability to shock the establishment with its sexual and political content. However, nowadays, it is very tame stuff indeed, and unlikely to cause a stir among the chattering masses. This is no doubt why Trevor Nunn concentrates more on the farcical aspects of the play, rather than the subversive.
A star-studded cast of over 30 performs the two simple, but delightful stories exquisitely. Alex Jennings is a scream as the flamboyant and overdressed ‘Foppington’. He captures the camp essence of this vain buffoon with precision timing. He also has all the best lines and so most of the satire comes from him. The rest of the cast can only be classed as ‘supporting’, but what a fine cast they are with such distinguished actors as Imogen Stubbs, Edward Petherbridge and Brian Blessed, to name but a few.
The stage design by Sue Blane beautifully re-creates the period with a candlelit restoration theatre built on the Olivier stage. This helps give the stage a more conventional look, as the Olivier is a large and difficult theatre in which to create atmosphere.
Alex Jennings has received most of the best notices from the popular press..... DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “Alex Jennings gives what will surely be judged the comic performance of the year.” RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, “The most screaming performance… is that of Edward Petherbridge in the small part of the homosexual matchmaker.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for the TIMES says, “Alex Jennings is top of the fops in The Relapse at the National Theatre, but Trevor Nunn's production still disappoints.” MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “This production gets a brilliant performance from Alex Jennings.” SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE OBSERVER says, “Alex Jennings reveals comedic talents.” JOHN THAXTER for THE STAGE says, “ Alex Jennings' beautifully judged star turn as Foppington, self-regarding under outrageous wigs and costumes, gets its effects with cool restraint.” MARK ESPINER for TIME OUT says, “Alex Jennings’s fantastically camp Foppington is brilliant.” NICHOLAS DE JONGH for the EVENING STANDARD says, "Jennings...is too gay for words and too gross for conviction. But Jennings almost alone communicates and induces outrageous, farcical pleasure."
Lasting 3 hours 15 minutes, with one interval, you hardly notice the time as this enchanting play charms and amuses one.
Links to full reviews from newspapers...
(Production photo by Manual Harlan, Royal National Theatre)