Restoration comedy The Soldiers' Fortune opened at the Young Vic on Thursday (22 February 2007, following previews from 15 February), starring Anne-Marie Duff, Oliver Ford Davies, Ray Fearon and David Bamber (See News, 10 Jan 2007).
David Lan’s production of Thomas Otway’s comedy, which runs to 31 March 2007, is set in 1680 and revolves around Beaugard and Courtine who, returning empty-handed to London from wars abroad, hit upon a scheme to improve their fortunes.
Overnight critics were mainly uninspired by a production that is far too long and slow. What’s more, they did not enjoy the performances of the cast, who, for the most part, they said, come across as over the top and unsure of their characterisations. However, some were slightly more convinced by the merits of the text itself, while Ray Fearon and Oliver Ford Davies stood out as making the best they could of their roles.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) –
“The frustrating thing about David Lan’s revival of Thomas Otway’s The Soldiers' Fortune is the opportunity lost to re-establish a really fine Restoration comedy; as the evening drains away without laughter or brio of any kind, so does the will to live…. The spirit of the play does not live in the playing, which is crude, over-emphatic, without pace or subtlety; it lacks the fire, wit and panache to match Otway’s text. We don’t fall in love with anyone on the stage.... David Bamber and Oliver Ford Davies play every line as if it were their first, so there’s no progression in their acting, only humourless enforcement and a lot of shouting and eye-rolling. Anne-Marie Duff is always delightful, but she seems here to disappear inside her character, while Ray Fearon’s handsome bravado is counter-productive. There’s a strangely unattractive score by Tim Sutton, which drags the actors unwillingly into song…. Otway died young in 1685, four years after this play made his name. Unfairly overshadowed by Etherege and Congreve, the poor playwright, who also wrote Venice Preserv’d and The Orphan, must try his luck another day.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (2 stars) – “David Lan's Young Vic revival of Otway's 1680 comedy, although played in period, is distinctly heavy-going, with laughter thin on the ground. The fault in part lies with Otway's play. Despite some passages of spirited bawdy, it mercilessly flogs a single joke: the cuckolding of an old doting doodle, Sir Davy Dunce, by a disbanded soldier newly returned from the French war…. Although Otway's language is feisty, his plotting is distinctly feeble. The chief pleasure, in a strenuous evening, lies in the performance of Oliver Ford Davies as the deceived Sir Davy. He captures the mania, as well as the credulity, of a rasping old fool who has made an absurd December-May marriage…. Ford Davies aside, the evening has little sense of social or emotional reality. Lizzie Clachan's set is a cumbersome affair…. And many of the performances have a slightly directionless quality. Ray Fearon and Alec Newman, as the returning soldiers, convey little of the bitterness of the discarded military after the war. Anne-Marie Duff flounces prettily as Lady Dunce, without making you feel for her plight. And although David Bamber scoops us the odd laugh, as the voyeuristic pander, he doesn't convey the man's wheezing repulsiveness.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (1 star) – “I want to see flashing blue lights in Waterloo Road. Signs in livid neon should warn innocent theatregoers: ‘Major Theatrical Hazard Ahead for three hours. Deep Disappointments Expected. Beware of Extreme Boredom. Take diversions or drive through Mirth-Free Zone.’ For David Lan has picked up a humour and wit bypass kit to direct a revival of Thomas Otway's Restoration comedy…. If there have been less amusing classic comedy revivals since the Eighties, I have luckily missed them…. The bland, irritable Beaugard of Ray Fearon, whose six-pack stomach gives the one satisfying performance, attempts to win the willing, waiting hand of Anne-Marie Duff's wooden Lady Dunce…. Lan's heavy-weather, lumbering production is hampered by Lizzie Clachan's unwieldy set…. The play calls for comedians of Lee Evans' resource or actors of Mark Rylance's comic potency. These actors succumb to silly grotesqueries when trying to be funny.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “David Lan has barely put a foot wrong as the artistic director of the Young Vic, while the theatre's stylish rebuild has proved a triumph. It therefore gives me no pleasure at all to report that, with The Soldiers' Fortune, he has a steaming great flop on his hands…. Somehow almost all the play's potential is squandered. Whereas Nicholas Hytner has set his current fine production of… The Man of Mode… in a recognisably modern London, Lan disastrously opts for stuffy period charm, making the play's concerns seem dismayingly remote. Set designer Lizzie Clachan has even created a picturesque 17th-century proscenium playhouse in the Young Vic auditorium. The effect is to make this bracingly heartless and at times downright filthy play seem merely quaint. David Bamber, an actor I greatly admire, proves deeply disappointing in the key role of Sir Jolly Jumble, turning the disgusting old voyeur into a merely camp figure of fun. Anne-Marie Duff is deliciously flirtatious… but fails to capture the poignancy…. There are a few sparks amid the gloom. Ray Fearon has the right swagger and dash as our amorous hero, Captain Beaugard, and Oliver Ford Davies is in terrific form as the wretched Sir Davy Dunce.”
Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (3 stars) – “With answers of 68 syllables where one would do, it's no surprise that this Restoration comedy loosens its hold on our interest well before it ends. But if the comedy is too talky and too long (more than three hours), it is also full of exuberance and merriment, and David Lan's production provides plenty of its own…. The huge, sprawling playing area of the remodelled Young Vic is a challenge that most of the cast rise to meet, but Lady Dunce (Anne-Marie Duff) and her friend Sylvia (Kananu Kirimi) are often inaudible…. Ben Turner contributes a droll cameo as Beaugard's French servant…. David Bamber's Sir Jolly, the local pimp, is funny at first, but the welcome he earns with his speech difficulties… is soon worn out by his rolling eyes, leering lips, and flapping hands. The best is last. As the cuckolded Sir Davey, Oliver Ford Davies is majestic in his foolishness, hilarious in his terror and constantly adorable. With a snarl to rival that of WC Fields, he warns off foes by calling them ‘sweetheart’, and, with the round eyes and little grin of an eager baby, he anticipates a treat we know will end in tears, screams and broken furniture.”
- by Caroline Ansdell