A dozen years ago, when I last saw William Congreve’s comedy of 1700, I wrote that it was “a play more admired than strongly liked”, and Rachel Kavanaugh’s Chichester revival confirms that attitude in me at least. I am not one of the most consistent fans of Kavanaugh’s direction, but on this occasion she puts herself and her cast entirely in the service of the play (if not always of the Festival Theatre’s acoustics). The faults are Congreve’s.
Foremost among these is the length to which he takes the Restoration stage’s fondness for polished banter. “Show, don’t tell” may not have been in currency as a dramatic maxim three centuries ago, but there must surely have been a fundamental presumption in that direction. Here, the pre-nuptial negotiation scene between principal lovers Mirabell and Millamant (Jo Stone-Fewings and Claire Price) is a thing of beauty. But otherwise, by my reckoning, fully an hour of the evening’s two and three-quarters had elapsed before characters stopped explaining matters to each other and engaging in foppish “raillery” and something actually happened. This was the entrance of the more broadly comic character of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, played with deadpan bluntness by Jeremy Swift.
Sir Wilfull is in many ways an obvious audience favourite, yet Congreve’s preferences clearly lie with Mirabell and Millamant and with the doyenne of their social circle, Lady Wishfort. The latter is a character well within Penelope Keith’s most stereotypical constituency, but the actress is neither given any real opportunity by the playwright, nor does she make any of her own, to impress upon her portrayal any individuality or, to be frank, memorability.
There is much elegant sporting of a variety of perukes (albeit in mane-like styles reminiscent perhaps more of a heavy metal festival than of Williamite England), and self-congratulatory exchanges between supporting fops which are almost as crystalline as the couple of dozen chandeliers on Paul Farnsworth’s set. However, neither Stone-Fewings as wooer-in-chief Mirabell, Richard Clothier as the scheming Fainall, nor Keith as the supposed arbiter of all kinds of propriety, makes a lasting impression. In 2000 I concluded that this is a Restoration comedy that “does not rollick”; on this occasion, with the sole exception of Swift’s Sir Wilfull, I repeat that verdict more emphatically.