Beaumarchais’ comedy was so controversial in late eighteenth-century France that it took six years to reach the stage in 1784 – and so popular that it ran for an unprecedented 100 plus performances.
It was all a matter of class. Beaumarchais (and two years later, Mozart) dared to champion servants defying, even denouncing their masters, showing them up with clever ruses. Kate Saxon’s spirited production retains this indignation and finds the fun, though sometimes too broad and in-yer-face, in the tricks played on the lustful Count by his entire household – including his long-suffering wife. It’s well-matched to Ranjit Bolt’s colloquial adaptation.
Mozart lovers might find themselves recognising cues for much-loved arias, but they should enjoy the originality of Sarah Travis’ incidental music, especially as played on Joanna Hickman’s plangent cello, on her eyrie high above the various chambers represented by Libby Watson’s witty set.
The way set designers rise to the challenge of fitting their ideas into the Watermill’s intimate space is a constant delight, and Watson’s cartoonish Baroque, all foreshortened perspectives and set off by a ‘tasteful’ mannequin pis statuette, is a cracker.
Jason Baughan’s Figaro and Ruth Everett’s Suzanne make a handsome and resourceful couple, convincingly quick-thinking and quick on their feet. Rachel Atkins’ bouncy Countess plays the comedy and the pathos of her situation especially well (is the Watermill working its way through the cast of The Archers incidentally? Atkins is the bouncy Vicky Tucker and Richard Attlee’s Kenton was indeed moonlighting in Moonlight and Magnolias!). Philip Bird is suitably caddish and buffoonish, making his unsavoury play to enjoy droit de seigneur (the right to sleep with his servant’s bride on her wedding night) to Suzanne.
When Liam Bergin’s (East Enders’ Danny Mitchell) comically oversexed Cherubin pants ardently after anything in the household in a skirt, you might miss Mozart’s glorious aria “Voi che sapete”, but it’s quite different having a man doing the lusting rather than a soprano. Bergin doubles usefully as country bumpkin Pedrille, Hickman makes a fine wench of Fanchette and versatile Julian Harries is her father, Antoine the gardener, and occupies the opposite eyrie to hers, playing the keyboards as Bazille the music-master.
The chief joy of this production is the hilarious climax of the night-time garden scene – played in the Watermill’s glorious gardens. Watson’s deliciously décolletée frocks for Susanna and the Countess are of course apparently swapped to fool the Count into thinking he is dallying with Susanna, little knowing it’s actually his Countess. Everyone plays up the deception to the hilt as Figaro and Cherubin are fooled too. And before the revelations and reconciliations, there’s something about these alfresco frolics that finally does hit comic heights.