The Country Wife - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
There’s something reassuring about characters named Fidget, Pinchwife, Sparkish, Squeamish and Horner. You know where you are with them.
Granted, apart from that other great namer of characters, Dickens, they would be out of place anywhere other than in Restoration comedy – but then so, at least until Wilde and Orton, would be William Wycherley’s riotous broth of marriage, infidelity, sexuality, promiscuity, lies, deception and even love.
First staged in 1675 it was subsequently banished from the stage from 1753 to 1926 but has since become a regular draw – and is currently notching up its second revival at this theatre.
Under Polly Findlay’s direction its every-line’s-a-must-hear winner speed and cleverness is infused with a decidedly dark side – the country wife in question being threatened with having the word “whore” carved onto her face, her pet squirrel dismembered centre stage. Not quite always a laugh a minute then.
But with (high) society running riot (Charles II recently back on the throne, the nation’s theatres re-opened and anyone who was anyone seemingly “romantically” involved with everyone else) what could one expect?
Helen Goddard’s costumes are part punk, part faded glory, which together with the death mask make-up of many of the characters reflects the anything goes morality of Wycherley’s Medusa like story.
The plot centres around Horner (a wraithlike Felix Scott) who has bribed his physician (James Russell) to spread the rumour that his recent sojourn in France has rendered him impotent. It’s a conceit often visited since but has never worked so well as it does here with myopic husbands and simple chaperones encouraging their willing women to keep company with the “harmless” Horner.
Only Pinchwife (an increasingly malevolent Nick Fletcher) is immune to the pretence (and only because he missed out on the rumour) so becomes increasingly paranoid about keeping his naive country born wife Margery (an effectively extremely Welsh Amy Morgan) away from the literally demoralising influences of city life.
It’s an insecurity which is central to the play – and helps many of its excesses transcend the passage of time.