The Way of the World at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
William Congreve's The Way of the World is widely regarded as Restoration comedy at its best. The Restoration period saw a great resurgence of creative energy following the restrictive Puritan regime, and here we have a fine example of the type of strapping, robust comedy that characterises the period.
The plot is complex and at times difficult to follow. This is partly because Congreve did not fully develop his subplots, and partly because Matthew Lloyd's production lacks coherence and animation. Most of the principal characters are after the fortune of Lady Wishfort (a dotty old lady nicely played by Auriol Smith). In order to get it, much deception ensues. Everyone is related to everyone else, often in a roundabout way. And then there are the equally elaborate romantic liaisons, emotional blackmail and double-bluffs.
In this upper class environment of dubious morality and deceit, welcome diversion is provided by the two fops Witwoud (Tobias Menzies) and Petulant (Christopher Colquhoun, whose cod Northern accent would benefit from the attention of a voice coach). In direct contrast to the etiquette upheld by most of the central characters, country cousin Sir Wilfull Witwound (James Saxon) explodes on to the stage and defies social niceties to help expose some of the underlying dark currents.
The Way of the World is basically a morality tale, and good wins in the end. The play's biggest rogue, Fainall (Paul Higgins) is unmasked and vanquished, while the only two people who really love each other, Mirabell (a flat performance from Lloyd Owen) and Millamant (played by Emily Morgan with vivacity and lightness of touch) agree to marry and live happily ever after.
Making all of this relevant to a contemporary audience is a tough task, and many of the jokes just do not resonate. And, at two and a half hours (despite cuts), it's a long slog, and lacks synergy. Although some of the individual performances are very good, overall this production lacks vigour and pace and fails to engage the audience.
Recommended to huge fans of Renaissance comedy only.