When WS Gilbert's ' Entirely Original Farcical Comedy in Three Acts' was first performed, theatregoing Victorians viewed with horror the portrayal of a character's nakedly mercenary ambitions. The wry and elegant wit of Gilbert, freed from the rumpty-tumpty confines of Sir Arthur Sullivan's tunes, failed to impress contemporary sceptics despite the fact that Engaged is said to have proved the inspiration for Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest a few short years later. Indeed, in form, it is a cross between Wildean comedy and the Savoy operettas.
It deals with the commercial side of marriage. If Paul Chadidi's Cheviott Hill (brilliant) enters into nuptial vows - as a result of plot convolutions which can only be followed with a wet towel over one's forehead - each of the other eight characters will either benefit or be made impecunious. Hill himself is a rich, self-centred and bumptious miser who has yet one further personality flaw - he can't keep his hands of women. As a result, he finds by the third act, that he is (or may be) either engaged or married to three ladies at the same time. More fool him that he's blind to the fact that his principal attraction is the depth of his pocket rather than the elegance of his poetic lovemaking.
Tim Carroll (on loan from Shakespeare's Globe) directs this sparkling piece at a crackerjack pace, whilst never losing sight of Gilbert's clever linguistics and well-defined caricatures. None come out of the play with any credit, all being abysmally self-serving, particularly the vain, conniving and cynical fiancées.
Perky Maggie, a Scots rustic, is happy to desert her devious highland lad for the pleasures of Mammon, while the two London society girls tweet prettily but are hard-headed when it comes to financial settlements. All three are played superbly by Claire Ratcliff as Maggie, Caitlin Mottram as Belinda, and especially Octavia Walters as Minnie. The men are no mere ciphers either, their livelihoods depending on persuading or dissuading Hill from marriage. Robert Benfield as Hill's amoral uncle is particularly effective.
The joy of the writing is in the turns of phrase - Maggie's pragmatic mother is described as 'a majestic ruin, beautiful in decay' - while the jokes, though perhaps not so subtle as Wilde's, are often laugh-out-loud funny. What the Victorians couldn't see, but contemporary audiences can, is that Engaged was in fact a biting critique of their way of life, dressed up as improbable farce.
Framed by Sam Dowson's pretty Osbert Lancaster-ish Victoriana, this production is another triumph for Sam Walters' intimate little Orange Tree. His choice of plays this season, all but forgotten but all deserving, is impeccable.
- Stephen Gilchrist