The London Cuckolds at the National - Lyttelton
'All things this evening jump for your delight,' says Arabella (Caroline Quentin) in the prologue to The London Cuckolds. There's much to delight in this production, not least Quentin herself. Edward Ravenscroft's farce was first performed in 1681 and was so popular that it was replayed on Lord Mayor's Day every year for 70 years. Now the play is back in a new adaptation by Terry Johnson, author of Hysteria and Dead Funny, who also directs.
I'll confess to an ignorance of the original, but Johnson has obviously polished up the text to heighten its sparkle for modern audiences. It's an indication of his skill that you never feel overtly aware that this is an adaptation; you just don't have to put in extra work to get the jokes. I don't, however, want to detract from the richness of Ravenscroft's creation. It's easy to see why the National felt The London Cuckolds would appeal to a '90s audience. Essentially, it's a play about men and women 'behaving badly'. As this suggests, we're not a million miles away from sitcom land.
If only today's TV writers had half the invention and wit evident here. There are some delicious comic moments in Cuckolds. While some of these may be attributed to Johnson's modernisation - as when Ramble (Ben Miles) emerges from Arabella's chamber effectively hand-cuffed - many others arise when Johnson allows the actors to bring Ravenscroft's own inventiveness to bear. An example of this is when Townly (Nigel Lindsay) seduces Arabella (or is it the other way around?) and all she can say, as per her husband's instructions, is 'no'. There's another delicious piece when Eugenia's (Sharon Small) husband Dashwell (William Chubb) almost catches her in flagrante with Loveday (Alexander Hanson). Suffice to say not all the limbs which Dashwell so ardently caresses belong to his wife!
Where The London Cuckolds does significantly differ from sitcom is in its length. It comes in at two and a half hours, and I'd be a liar if I said it doesn't drag a little. Perhaps we're just used to having our comedy served in snack-size these days or maybe there's enough material here to fill a series rather than a single episode. Then again, maybe it's just that Quentin is such a joy to watch that you pine whenever she's absent from the stage. If this was a TV show, you can be sure they'd call it Arabella and never let the camera leave her, except during the ad break.
Theatregoers outside London can catch up with the cuckolds on a tour, starting on April 28th, which takes in Bath, Sheffield, Newcastle and Nottingham.
Justin Somper, March 1998