The week in theatre: The Way of the World; The Country Wife; Plastic – review

Restoration drama has in the past week been restored to the London stage. And here are two arguments for why that’s a good thing: utterly different productions of plays by Williams Congreve and Wycherley. Both demonstrate, to an age inclined to under-writing, the delights of intricate expression. Both present to a sentimental epoch the astringent possibilities of scepticism. Both challenge a theatrical shibboleth. When desperate, and not laughing, you are supposed to be able to know that a Shakespeare play is a comedy because it ends in marriage. But matrimony here is a fearful thing. A financial cage from which people flit for pleasure.

Nowhere is this more dazzlingly portrayed than in The Way of the World, yet its first staging in 1700 was a flop: Congreve retired aged 30. The play does have hazards. The plot is so corrugated that it makes sense simply to go along with what is evident – the need for ex-rake Mirabell to unlock an inheritance and marry his beloved Millamant, and the undermining of his plans by past romances and resentments. Latch on to the local delights until all unravels into a kind of clarity.

Fisayo Akinade (Witwoud) in The Way of the World. Photograph: Johan Persson

At the centre (hardly the heart) of the play is a horror story. The Dwindling. In one of the most precisely itemised, gloriously calibrated speeches ever written, Millamant lays down the conditions for her marriage. No pet names, and no having to be nice to fools because they are her husband’s relations. If these and other stipulations are met, she may, “by degrees, dwindle into a wife”.

Mirabell makes his own demands (among them are, strikingly, no straitlacing or makeup), but it is the woman who lays down the grounds for a truthful marriage. This is a doubly powerful exchange: driven equally by the feeling of the lovers, sparringly expressed, and their contempt for society’s arrangements.

Geoffrey Streatfeild is a subtle, convincing Mirabell. Justine Mitchell is superb as Millament. She has the necessary poise and quickness but also brings something unexpected. In a world of subterfuge she is candid. Not merely bewitching but lovable. Haydn Gwynne – got up like Marie Antoinette’s idea of a shepherdess in a frou-frou frock – is a tremendous, toppling feat of self-deception, sad and ridiculous: “O, nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion.”

The comic highpoint is Fisayo Akinade as – “I make remarks” – Witwoud. Bewildered by his own preposterousness, he totters around as if he were balancing a pile of epigrams on his head. I can’t remember when I last saw an actor who seemed so effortlessly funny, instantly able to capsize an audience.

This success, helped by Anna Fleischle’s glowing jewel-box design, proves the exceptional range of director James Macdonald: one of theatre’s great lights. Having brought flesh to the brilliant, bony structures of Caryl Churchill’s plays, he now makes clear the structure beneath the flim-flam of high-speed talk. From the earthiness of Arnold Wesker’s Roots he turns to the acidity of Restoration rapier speak.

Alex Beckett – Barney Lumsden in W1A – was very funny and nimble as a pivotally deceiving character: Waitwell. Tragically, Beckett died suddenly last week. The Donmar cancelled the rest of the week’s performances as a mark of respect.

Haydn Gwynne (Lady Wishfort) with Alex Beckett as Waitwell.

Haydn Gwynne (Lady Wishfort) with Alex Beckett as Waitwell. Photograph: Johan Persson

At Southwark, Morphic Graffiti bring clarity, speed and vigour to their adaptation of Wycherley’s story of an innocent young woman tethered to an old goat. Abandonedly lewd – from the pun in its title to the pretended, much discussed impotence of one character – The Country Wife ends in calculation, with the heroine looking forward to a life of lying (my pun) and “a dance of cuckolds”.

You need to go prepared for this young company to live up to their name: they morph plays and graffiti their talent over it. But every moment is directed with conviction by Luke Fredericks. The action is transplanted from 1675 to the 1920s – with bright young things prancing their way through dilemmas. Fredericks has a background in dance which tells in the fluid display of the evening. Scene changes are performed by the cast, who scythe their way across the stage in silk pyjamas and clinging robes, bumping bums, shimmying, cha-cha-cha-ing.

Bright young thing… Siubhan Harrison, with Mabel Clements and Nancy Sullivan downstage, at Southwark Playhouse.

Bright young thing… Siubhan Harrison, with Mabel Clements and Nancy Sullivan downstage, at Southwark Playhouse. Photograph: Darren Bell

Another rhythm is set up between private and public speech. Any aside by a character – this production makes you realise how many there are – is accompanied by a dipping of light. It’s an impressive technical feat by lighting director Sam Waddington; it also repunctuates the play, giving it the flicker of film. It becomes not only a series of dialogues between characters but a series of internal discussions. With a witty apogee when one aside, frozen in light, consists only of a gasp.

Thomas Coombes, right, with Louis Greatorex in Plastic.

Thomas Coombes, right, with Louis Greatorex in Plastic. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Observer

Ever since I saw Thomas Coombes in Tooting Arts’s Barbarians I have wanted to see him on stage again. Two years ago he steamed with fury. Here he is in Plastic, Kenneth Emson’s part-rhyming play, first seen as a work in progress at the 2015 Latitude festival, about the legacy of teenage bullying.

He is again furious – and remarkable. As a put-upon, simmering schoolboy (“Think Columbine,” he repeats to himself) he has a face like a fist and a body bunched up with hurt. I’m amazed telly hasn’t snaffled him.

There is plenty more talent in Josh Roche’s pacey production. Mark Weinman as the cool schoolboy; Madison Clare as the temptress teenager; Louis Greatorex as the dark joker. Sophie Thomas’s design sends lightbulbs zinging on wires, bringing flashes of colour to a dark place. This echoes Emson’s script: punchily written but intermittent, stronger on pulse than on plot – and packing in a young audience.

Star ratings (out of 5)
The Way of the World ★★★★
The Country Wife ★★★★

The Way of the World is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 26 May
The Country Wife is at Southwark Playhouse, London, until 21 April
Plastic is at the Old Red Lion, London, until 21 April

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