George Farquhar’sThe Beaux’ Stratagem is a delightful romp through Georgian restoration comedy that touches on female emancipation, the marriage game, and the battle of the sexes, with a bit of a song and dance thrown in.
It opened this week at the National Theatre and it’s a real treat. How much of it is original and how much has been tweaked by its director Simon Godwin and writer Patrick Marber (both credited in the programme for dramaturgy) is open to debate but it is tremendous fun and rather racy.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is probably the only play ever written that uses Lichfield, Staffs as a location and the lyrical Midlands’ accents add an extra dimension to the comedy.
Googling Lichfield you discover that it was home to both actor-manager David Garrick and writer Samuel Johnson and, during the 18th century, was both an cultural hub and a bustling coaching city whose inns grew prosperous from itinerant travellers.
So perhaps it’s no wonder Farquhar chose one of its hostelries to set his comedy.
We meet a couple of chancers who are on the road after falling on hard times. These gentlemen paupers, who are down to their last £200 (after squandering £10,000!), hit upon the jolly wheeze (the stratagem of the title) of finding a rich provincial lady to marry, taking her dowry, and continuing their debauched lifestyles.
One will play the handsome lord while the other his manservant. In differing towns they will change roles until the deed is accomplished.
But, in a rather modern twist, the ladies in this immorality tale are just as scheming. Publican’s daughter, Cherry, has ideas above her station, while prize catch Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner), is looking for a title and an elevated place in society.
Helping her achieve her aim is her sister-in-law Mrs Sullen who is trapped in a sad and sorry marriage to Dorinda’s sop of a brother.
He bitterly regrets marrying and spends his days in a drunken stupor while his lovely wife yearns for the sophistication of the city.
And so the game begins. Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell is the worst possible suitor, unable to keep his eye on prize without getting all soppy and romantically attached, while his “servant,” Archer, (Geoffrey Streatfeild) juggles flings with both upstairs and downstairs women, Cherry and Mrs S.
His rousing asides to the audience draw us into their plotting, though we are equally taken into the confidence of the spirited Mrs Sullen (the delightful Susannah Fielding) who is very much a women ahead of her time.
Into the romantic mayhem is a second story involving highwaymen and the dastardly French while scenes (usually involving the deliciously scheming Archer) frequently break out into song and dance (accompanied by a rather good on-stage band).
Godwin, on a roll at the National with Ralph Fiennes in Man & Superman, shows a deftness of touch that makes this an entertaining and saucy comedy.
There are outstanding performances from the whole cast but Pearce Quigley’s splendid deadpan delivery as put-upon Scrub, servant to the Sullens, is knockout.
And we don’t see enough of the wonderful Jane Booker as Dorinda’s mother and local herbalist, Lady Bountiful, who dispenses dubious cures to all and sundry.
The supporting characters are richly drawn, from the ambitious Cherry (Amy Morgan) and her scheming publican father (Lloyd Hutchinson) to French officer and prisoner Count Bellair (Timothy Watson) and suspect Euro-priest Foigard (Jamie Beamish).
The Beaux’ Stratagem runs in rep on the Olivier stage until September. It will be televised as part of the NT Live initiative on September 3.
The Beaux' Stratagem
George Farquhar’s saucy restoration romp, The Beaux’ Stratagem, has been lovingly revived by Simon Godwin for the National Theatre to tell a story that is remarkably modern.