John Fowles' never-before-seen version of Marivaux's rom-com is a double date that could be doubly dated: it's a 1983 translation of a 1730 French play, in which two potential lovers swap places with their servants to better get the measure of one another. Needless to say, both the well-bred pair and their waiting staff mutually fall for their opposite number, all while believing them to be unmarriably the wrong class.
Naturally, class will out: the posh people simply can't help but prove terribly refined while the low-lifes remain crude and comic. And there's not a jot of will-they-won't-they. They so obviously will – indeed, both pairs are engaging in manipulative tricks so the other will prove the extent of their romantic will-power. Still, there's an irresistible symmetry to the story, and in Paul Miller's trotting production it's easy to be scooped along for a fine old ride.
That's partly because Miller has quite rightly followed Fowles' own note that the driver of the play is "violent physical attraction". This is an hour and a half of lust-at-first-sight, of pure infatuation, in all its knee-trembling, giddy glory. Chemistry smoulders in all four corners of the stage. Claire Lams as Louisa the maid snaps her fan and bats her eyelashes, but her seduction techniques are soon fired by real love; as John Brass the manservant, Keir Charles' trouser twitching and tackle-rearranging ain't subtle, but his vulgar impersonation of a foppish lord amuses.
Ashley Zhangazha has a noble desperation as the rich, straight-man suitor Richard, but the real star of the night is Dorothea Myer-Bennett, whose Sylvia is very much the heroine of the play. The most multifaceted character, one minute she's coolly supercilious and the next utterly love-sick, and Myer-Bennett oscillates between feistily confident lucidity and tremulous heart-sore panic, while always imbuing this woman with real intelligence.
Maviraux was famous enough for his sparkling style that the somewhat disparaging term ‘marivaudage' was coined after him. There's certainly a fizzy wit to Fowles' translation, which updates the action to Regency England, but it does still sound thoroughly mannered. This isn't really a problem: the play's all about pretence and performance, after all. Miller ups this by having the cast, in this intimate in-the-round space, address lots of scoffing or scornful lines very directly to the audience.
Simon Daw's set stages the whole thing under a canopy of roses and tealights, which cues you in to the romantic tone. Miller is not interested in exploring potential murkiness: the weird cruelty of deceiving someone you love as a test is glossed, and any queasiness at the fact that it's Sylvia's father who gleefully gets the whole trick going – and that she at one point pretends, ew, to fancy her brother to further dupe Richard – are mostly played for blustery laughs.
It's all as frothy and bustling as a Regency frock, and about as relevant to the modern day. But it certainly makes for an enjoyable evening, and has an elevating performance at its heart.