The egg-laying habits of the cuckoo may seem a dubious and highly unlikely link with London's theatre scene, but for this play written by Thomas Otway in 1681, it's the central ingredient. For it's the way the cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds' nests that gives us the title for a man whose wife has cheated on him - a 'cuckold'. And that's what the bulk of 'The Soldiers' Fortune' really focuses on.
It starts though with the homecoming of two soldiers - Captain Beaugard and Courtine - who return from the wars in poverty, mirroring Otway's own experiences of life in the army. However, Beaugard has recently acquired some cash - he's been sent gold by an admirer in return for his portrait. The woman in question is Lady Dunce the twenty-something wife of Justice of the Peace Sir Davy Dunce, 65, resident of Covent Garden, no less.
With the help of an ageing, outrageously camp and impotent voyeur, Sir Jolly Jumble, Beaugard tries to get into the Dunce's house to have his way with Lady Dunce. And it's not a one way street. Lady Dunce is just as anxious to have the pleasure of the upright Captain's company, and dupes her hubbie into taking messages to Beaugard on her behalf. Unfortunately, Beaugard is not exactly the brightest kid on the block, so takes offence, and for a while it looks like he and Lady Dunce won't get it together.
Meanwhile Courtine falls for Lady Dunce's friend, Sylvia. Though they pretend to hate each other as part of a rather tormented and peculiar courting ritual - during which Courtine is hung out to sober up after a night's drinking - it all comes good in the end. And Sir Davy is thankful to find that he's not murdered Beaugard after all, and actually doesn't seem to mind one jot that he's been well-and-truly cuckolded. I love happy endings, don't you?
The ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies takes on the role of Sir Davy, and he's in fine form too. At times in full-rage, at others doting pathetically on his unfaithful wife, and yet later terrified he might have killed someone, it's a well-considered performance as one would expect from Davies. David Bamber plays Sir Jolly Jumble with aplomb, though I became a little weary of the camp character after the interval.
'The Soliders' Fortune' isn't the kind of comedy that's going to have anyone rolling in the aisles or leaving the theatre aching with laughter. But it might bring about aches in some other parts of the anatomy because at over 3 hours in length it's a marathon cuckolding that could easily be an hour shorter and no-one would be any the poorer (or wiser). Though it gives us an insight into the new-found sexual freedoms of the restoration era - after the puritans had been turfed out of government and everyone went back to having some well-deserved fun - it tells us little else that's either important or very meaningful. And since it's not generally recognised as the best of Otway's works, one is left wondering why it really deserves an airing. There are times when it raises a few smiles and the occasional laugh, but the jokes are thin on the ground and it seems incredibly repetitive - I lost count of the number of times that (almost everyone) is irritatingly referred to as a 'rogue'.
Rather more interesting is Thomas Otway's life which not only included writing plays and falling in love with one of the great actresses of the time, but also encompassed a spell in the army from which he returned as impecunious as the soldiers in his play. He died when, in dire financial circumstances at the age of 33, he was handed a guinea by someone in the street, rushed off to buy some bread and promptly choked on it! Now there must be a play somewhere in that!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "If there have been less amusing classic comedy revivals since the Eighties I have luckily missed them. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Distinctly heavy-going, with laughter thin on the ground." ALISTER SMITH for THE STAGE says, " The production fails to rise above the status of a curiosity piece." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Uniquely brazen and “in-yer-face” for a Restoration comedy, as Lan claims in the programme. Maybe. A complete success? Nearly, but not quite. "