The news that artistic director Philip Wilson is to leave the Salisbury Playhouse after four successful years coincides with his fine revival of Marivaux’s 18th century The Game of Love and Chance.
This smart and witty translation, by Neil Bartlett, was set in the 1930s when premiered at National Theatre in 1993; Wilson opts for the 1960s in a dusty blue, mildly palatial setting by Tom Rogers inhabited by characters who look as though they’re on their way to Swinging London.
We are, indeed, supposed to be in the country (I once saw a Parisian production with live sheep), but it never feels like it, the one big fault I can find. Otherwise, the show is a delight of civilised cross talk and palpitating emotions as two couples – one aristocratic, one plebeian – get their co-habiting plans and social standing in a twist.
In the first place, Silvia has been allotted to the dashing Mr Dorant by her father. Dorant arrives disguised as his own chauffeur in order to test her out. Meanwhile, the real chauffeur, the madcap Arlecchino, the stand-in aristo, gravitates naturally towards the “madame” of Silvia’s pert and pretty maid, Lisette, who’s loving her new frocks.
The playing of this quartet needs to be both needle-sharp and knowing, and that’s exactly what we get: Hattie Ladbury is superb as Silvia, overflowing with comic grace and savoir faire, while the delightfully lusty Jo Herbert makes a scene-stealing meal of Lisette. Tom Davey is a handsome, devoted Dorant, and Antonio Magro an outrageously athletic Arlecchino.
Their antics are quietly supervised, as if in a laboratory, by Silvia’s father, benignly done by Stephen Critchlow, and her brother, Maurice, whom Glyn Kerslake turns into a mood-setting pianist and singer, churning out Burt Bacharach numbers at a white grand.
Marivaux is difficult, even for the French, to get right, but Wilson’s production, beautifully laid out on the Salisbury semi-thrust stage, is played with tremendous spirit and opens all access to the human heart. He’s going to be a very hard act to follow when he goes.