Sir John Vanbrugh believed that, "the stage is a glass for the world to view itself in; people ought therefore to see themselves as they are; if it makes their faces too fair, they won’t know they are dirty, and by consequence will neglect to wash ‘em."
While such character flaws may be unbearable in reality, when viewed on stage they can be a real joy. Indeed, the polished performances in Perfect Mayhem’s latest production buff up human frailties so that they shine gorgeously under the stage lights.
In a stroke of brilliance, this under-performed restoration comedy has been cloaked in the guise of a 1920s Mayfair Set full of waggish women and not-so-gentle gentlemen. Perfect Mayhem initially established themselves on the premise that they had seen far too many productions with all-male casts, and the fairer sex really give the men a run for their money in Vanbrugh’s play: Lady Brute (Laura Corbett) is stuck in a loveless marriage with a man she married for money; her niece Bellinda (Fleur Shepherd) is her confident confidante, and Lady Fanciful (Joan Walker) is a character so vain she probably thinks the entire play is about her.
The cut-glass accents make Vanbrugh’s text a real delight to hear, and suit the play’s themes of affectation and social graces beautifully. Corbett and Shepherd in particular must be commended, especially for their discussion on how they practice the expressions they use in public. The male players are of equal merit, most notably Sam Nicholl as Heartfree, whose terror and self-disgust at falling in love is as touching as it is amusing.
But it is director Joss Bennathan‘s attention to detail that enables this piece to be exquisitely brilliant. The actors’ eyes are hilariously communicative throughout, whether from put-upon servant Cornet (Oliver King), puppy-eyed lover Constant (Jamie Hitchens) or the rambunctious Sir Brute himself (John Dorney). Having the scene changes done in character is a delightful touch, ensuring that the lightness and humour rarely dip in what might otherwise be a difficult play to communicate to a modern audience.
Given the general Jeeves and Wooster feel of the show, Sir Brute’s anger is at times genuinely harrowing and seems at odds with the rest of the production. His resentment and frustration, while often comic, sometimes gives way to a thundering rage, and while the production is punctuated by its sharp wit, his fury cuts a little too deep.
It is right that productions of The Provoked Wife should not shy away from the painful realities of a bad marriage, as therein lies its moral; but if the rest of the adaptation is given over to such high jinks then perhaps Dorney’s otherwise enjoyably roguish performance should be fiery rather than ferocious at its peak.
Having said that, this comedy of manners (or lack thereof) is a genuine delight. Perfect Mayhem prove that Vanbrugh’s play has been shamefully neglected – especially when it can be done as well as this.