Theatre review: The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National Theatre

Timothy Watson, Jane Booker, Pearce Quigley, Amy Morgan, Molly Gromadzki and Nicholas Khan in the Be

Timothy Watson, Jane Booker, Pearce Quigley, Amy Morgan, Molly Gromadzki and Nicholas Khan in the Beaux' Stratagem. Picture: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

This restoration revival packs a modern punch, says Marianka Swain.

Farquhar the feminist – who knew? Simon Godwin’s nimble revival reclaims this 1707 Restoration comedy romp as a bold treatise on love, marriage and gender inequality. Patrick Marber’s judicious tweaking pairs its surprisingly pertinent discourse with equally contemporary humour – a key contribution to a production of peerless timing.

Scheming dandies Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild) are hunting for an eligible heiress to solve their financial woes. Arriving in rural Lichfield disguised as master and servant, they set their sights on Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner), but Aimwell’s growing affection threatens their plot, while Archer is drawn to her unhappily married sister-in-law (Susannah Fielding).

Godwin plays up Farquhar’s post-modern approach, honouring genre conventions while knowingly subverting them. Audience asides are coolly ironic and song breaks signposted by accomplished folk musicians claiming the stage – the pre-emptive arrival of an accordionist is the evening’s finest comic moment. The only dud is an act-closing monologue leaden with rhyming couplets.

Lizzie Clachan’s multi-level set shifts seamlessly between lowly tavern and great house, while the highborn hustlers are paralleled by the innkeeper’s thieving gang. But the biggest scam of all is marriage, suggests Farquhar, who borrows from Milton’s radical tracts arguing for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. The deathly combination of Richard Henders’ Sullen, welded to a tankard, and his wife, “cheated into slavery”, makes divorce as attractive a prospect as the inevitable climactic wedding.

Fielding’s Mrs Sullen is more spirited than bitter, bottled energy desperate for release, well matched by animated Bennett-Warner. Swashbuckling Barnett and Streatfeild transition superbly from cads to heroes, and there’s great support from Chook Sibtain’s imposing highwayman, Jamie Beamish’s accent-juggling priest, Amy Morgan’s shrewd wench, Jane Booker’s dotty healer, and scene-stealer Pearce Quigley’s lugubrious servant. Warm, witty and unexpectedly wise.

Rating: 4/5 stars