The week in theatre: The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich; Cathy – review

Is it a cluster, an epidemic or a fanfare? Pish! There’s no obvious right description but the phenomenon is evident. It’s easy to go for a year without seeing a Restoration comedy and yet now, within a week, there are three productions. An age waking up to gender inequalities responds to the time when women were first allowed on the English stage – and began to sharpen their dramatic quills.

Next week I’ll be writing about William Wycherley’s The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse (which has a further new staging in June) and the Donmar’s new production of William Congreve’s The Way of the World. Meanwhile, at the Swan in Stratford, The Beau Defeated has been retitled The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich. When first staged in 1700, it met with greater success than Congreve’s now more celebrated play. But who has seen it since? Or heard of its author, Mary Pix?

During her lifetime, Pix was jeered at in one drama, The Female Wits, where she appeared as “Mrs Wellfed”. She was also subjected to general scoffing. “What a Pox have Women to do with the Muses?” inquired one contemporary. This scorn may be a measure of her ascendancy. Between 1696 and 1706, some 13 Pix plays were put on in London.

Jo Davies’s production – bouncy, overstretched and with two tremendous live dogs – shows Pix as a creator of female-commanded stories, conventional satirical targets and juicy phrases. Panic threatens early on, where the action straggles all over the place. Events, chiefly driven by Mrs Rich’s wish to become Mrs Posh by bagging a titled husband, involve cousins and brothers-in-law and a complicated plan to recover a lost inheritance. Contrivance and disguise stand in for psychological intricacy. Hardly anyone is what they seem: the swankingly grand are inventing their pedigrees; the apparently lewd are pure; one central character comes on mainly masked.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – trailer

For a steer as to what is actually going on, look at the names and the insults. Sir John Roverhead (Tam Williams preens nicely as he twists his curls) has more than one admirer; as the landlady Mrs Fidget, Sadie Shimmin is a series of buoyant eruptions. Abuse – acknowledged here as the wit of the Restoration – is luscious: “caper-cutter”, “tattered frigate”, “all wig and no brains”. For more and ruder of the same, I recommend consulting the online Restoration Insult Generator of that great retriever of female wits, Fidelis Morgan.

In the title role, got up like a brocaded lampshade, Sophie Stanton ogles and dips and arches very enjoyably. She has a first-rate fight in her pantaloons, brandishing a feather duster. She also justifies one of Davies’s boldest decisions: to give her character further voice in song. Grant Olding’s music puts a gurgle under the action. A harpsichord tinkles decorously, while saxophones, played by swaying women with wigs like whipped cream, joyously proclaim their defiance.

There is no disguise in Cathy, no artifice, no mistaking the intention. Ali Taylor’s play is an appeal to outrage, a call to arms. First staged in 2016, it marked two anniversaries. It was 50 years since Ken Loach had directed (and Tony Garnett produced) Cathy Come Home, Jeremy Sandford’s BBC Wednesday Play, the fiction based on facts, which had sent shudders about homelessness through a generation. It was 25 years since Cardboard Citizens, the theatrical company working with and for homeless people, had been founded. The television drama had led to the formation of Crisis and to the rescinding of a particularly cruel piece of legislation banning homeless husbands from staying with their families in hostels. But Taylor’s play, a 21st-century remaking, suggests that though circumstances have changed, the inroads into what needs to be done have been pitiful.

‘Like someone being flayed’: Cathy Owen, right, in the title role, with Amy Loughton, in Cathy. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Observer

The arcs of Cathy and its predecessor are shamefully similar: insecure employment, rent arrears, eviction, hopeless temporary accommodation – and the eventual separation of mother and child. Taylor’s Cathy, whose daughter Danielle is about to sit her GCSEs, is offered accommodation miles from her east London home: one flat is in Gateshead. If she doesn’t accept she may be deemed to have made herself intentionally homeless. In a completely unexpected touch, Danielle, a sad, sulky, convincing Hayley Wareham wants to be a taxidermist: it is gruesomely convincing that she is an expert on the habits of the cockroaches in one sleazy set of rooms.

Adrian Jackson’s production is unblinking. The stage is brightly lit: there is no hiding place and no privacy. The song playing at the beginning of the evening belongs to the 1960s but the imperative is the same half a century later: “We gotta get out of this place.”

Watching Cathy Owen, as Cathy, is like watching someone being flayed. Attacked and attacking, clever and condescended to, she seems to lose layers of herself minute by minute. A desolate scene shows mother and daughter meeting after a long separation. Cathy has been spending nights on the 25 bus: a straight, unhilly route. Danielle, who has been living with a friend, is wearing designer specs. “You are gonna come and visit me, aren’t you?” Cathy asks her daughter, who starts to walk away. Cathy asks quickly about Danielle’s GCSE results: not as good as she’d hoped, but there are passes, and Cathy is enraptured. She repeats them like a poem, to take with her to West Bromwich where a flat has been found for her. On her own.

Star ratings (out of 5)
The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich ★★★
Cathy ★★★★

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich is at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon; until 14 June
Cathy is at the Soho theatre, London, until 14 April

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