Now, I’m a pretty cynical thing, me, but such is the irresistible charm of this delightful and heart-warming comedy that I fell completely under its spell. Love games, wilful deception and mistaken identity… It’s all bundled up in this perfectly crafted production on the hopes and travails of failing in love.
The show is built upon some solid foundations as the original source material is one of Marivaux’s most celebrated comedies, Le Jeu de L’Amour et du Hasard. The Game of Love and Chance. And, indeed, all that heightened flurry of emotions… All that anticipation, joy and excruciating pain of the first flushes of love have been kept perfectly intact in this terrific translation from John Fowles, who transported the setting to Regency England.
Sylvia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) is a wilful, independent-minded young woman. So, when her father (Pip Donaghy) announces he’s found the perfect suitor for her hand in marriage, Sylvia isn’t having any of it – not until, that is, she decides for herself whether this suitor, the handsome and wealthy Mr. Richard (Ashley Zhangazha), is the one for her.
But she wants to see his true character – not the airs and graces that would come with a straightforward introduction. So, she schemes with her maid, Louisa (Claire Lams) to swap places for his visit – all with the knowing approval of her father and brother (Tam Williams). Only – would you believe it – Mr Richard has only gone and pulled the same stunt, swapping places with his manservant Brass (Keir Charles), for exactly the same reasons.
And so off we hurtle on this love rollercoaster, which will see true love flourish in spite of all the hurdles put in its way. But even if there are no surprises coming in this play’s happy ending, there is much pleasure in the journey for this is a production that doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Director Paul Miller has paced the show beautifully, which runs ninety minutes straight through. The interpretation of the text has the laughs in all the right places, and yet also ensures the playfulness does not cast any shadow over the bite in the text. (A tale about a woman choosing her own suitor was a pretty radical one for the time.)
There’s also the smart and regular breakdown of the fourth wall to bring the audience into this merriment, and even though the stage area may be small, there’s a great use of space and a cheeky wink in the employment of short bursts of high notes to emphasise the sudden waves of illogical and irresistible attraction rolling over our star-struck lovers.
Sometimes when you see a comedy of mistaken identity that works as well as this, it can be all too easy to think it’s effortless. It isn’t. Comedies are damn hard – one misstep, a joke falls flat, and the audience is lost. But there’s none of that here. And as much as the direction, the performances have much credit to take for that too. Each is excellent, with a special mention for Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Ashley Zhangazha who deliver compelling and spirited performances in the two main roles, allowing the laughs and touches of farce to be played out around them.
Orange Tree Theatre, London, to May 13, 2017
All production images by Helen Maybanks.