Restoration, Hackney Empire, London

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Under its new artistic director, Rupert Goold, Oxford Stage Company has rebranded itself Headlong Theatre. The play-text for this, its first production, offers a dictionary definition of the word “headlong” that includes “starting boldly”. This the company surely is doing, touring this rare revival of Edward Bond’s ambitious 1981 play Restoration.

Bond’s play offers a fierce critique of social injustice but it tackles the issues with extraordinary theatrical audacity. It parodies the setting, style and energy of Restoration comedy but undercuts the froth, wigs and epigrams with ruthless scrutiny of 18th-century England and peppers it with Brechtian songs that update the relevance of the cruelty and hypocrisy on show.

We are in the household, then, of Lord Are, an insufferable fop much preoccupied by fashion and fads (played with splendid, monstrous vigour by Mark Lockyer). Having fallen on hard times, he is obliged to marry the daughter of a wealthy mine-owner. Husband and wife take an instant dislike to each other and spend several months squabbling until one morning Are inadvertently runs his wife through with a rapier. Aghast at how this might make him a laughing stock in the newspaper columns, he manages to pin the crime on to his faithful servant, Hedges.

This is where the play, already viciously satirical, turns completely bleak. Hedges, sitting in gaol, is convinced that his master will secure him a pardon. Only Hedges’ wife, daughter of a black slave, is clear-sighted enough to see that he is being framed. So Bond depicts a society in which the privileged work the system to suit themselves, but the serving classes to some extent collude in their own repression.

The play’s didacticism is limiting, both thematically and dramatically. But its dark parody is ingenious, and Goold and his company embrace its biting wit and lurid imagery with relish and carry off the stark songs. At Hackney Empire the cast struggled with the acoustics and size of the theatre, losing some essential lines – the production would work better in a smaller space. But this start bodes well for a company that clearly intends to continue boldly too, with a season of epic work. ★★★☆☆

Touring: tel 020 7438 9944

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