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Can Susannah Centlivre’s 1714 play possibly be as much fun as its title? Just about, yes. In fact, the fun of The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret is that it’s a classic farce, with individual scenes featuring five doors and a window.
On more than one occasion, two or three people are secreted in adjacent rooms/closets; and there’s one scene that precisely anticipates a famous plot twist in Beaumarchais’s (and Mozart’s) The Marriage of Figaro, whereby a jealous lover means to humiliate his fiancée for the person she has secreted in one room, only to be foiled by the quick machinations of her maidservant and then shamed by both women for his unreasonable suspicions. Might Beaumarchais have been influenced by Centlivre?
The Wonder! stayed in general repertory for 150 years (David Garrick gave his farewell performance in it). We have the Victorians to thank for Centlivre’s disappearance from the canon: she seemed too feminist.
The Wonder! has had no British production for 140 years. It seems about that long since I last visited the White Bear, but for Centlivre’s sake I was happy to be back. It would now be excellent to see a bigger-theatre production of this farce, cast to the hilt, but James Perkins, designer and co-producer of this production, has made a virtue of the White Bear’s limited space: he has created a single blue-and-white painted set that manages to seem now a street, now an interior, with three opening doors snugly adjacent, with opening flaps that the various hidden characters can open to give us their asides.
The two old fathers are ponderously cast, and this gets the play, which is directed by Derek Bond, off to a laborious start. Most of the juvenile-lover roles could use actors with greater supplies of charm and comic skill, and yet these actors are all spirited, relishing the opportunities they are given and delivering the 18th-century language with panache. Adrian Metcalfe stands out for the debonair fatuity with which he plays Colonel Britton; the servant roles are impishly played. As the play proceeds, both cast and audience seem to have a better and better time.
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