The Royal Exchange is currently on a roll. Now, after wowing audiences with Kes and Volpone, comes this Christmas production of a play written by the enfant terrible of 19th-century theatre, Dion Boucicault. This sublime farce reminds you that Oscar Wilde is not the only playwright capable of delivering timeless one-liners and pompous put-downs.
In order to boost his wealth, the ageing, vain fob Sir Harcourt Courtly leaves the city to pursue his rich bride-to-be. He has humour and the odd French phrase to offer his fiancé, but beneath his wigs and extravagant clothes is a lonely man, desperate to be loved. His son arrives in town before him and falls in love with his new mother. Enter Lady Gay Spanker, who tries to distract Sir Harcourt, even though she’s already married and staying under her father's roof.
After a slow start, the actors brings real pace to their performances and relish every element of Boucicault's delectable dialogue. Though Gerald Harper stumbles over his lines on more than one occasion, he has a wonderful dry wit and thrives when interacting with the audience. Similarly, Jacob Murray's direction initially seems stilted, but once he lets the actors take the reins during ensemble scenes, the play springs to life.
Although the lead performance is patchy, the rest of the cast deliver finely tuned turns. Race Davies' Lady is feisty, eccentric and lovable. The actress bounds across the stage like a gazelle as she fools Harcourt with ease. Rae Hendrie gives a confident, showy performance as Harcourt's unwilling betrothed. Jonathan Keeble is the star of the show, though. He steals every scene as the likeable lawyer who watches with delight at the misconceptions and misunderstandings all around him.
Louise Ann Wilson's lovely set is simple but effective - from the huge rugs to the marble arches - each prop pivotal to the farce which ensues. Jason Taylor's evocative lighting shines brightly on the tricksters and enables the audience to see through their arrogance and sheer gall.
On the night I attended, the audience roared with laughter. This classic comedy about the cheekiness of youth has aged remarkably well.
- Glenn Meads