The West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, traditionally a commercial receiving house, launched its major new initiative – a season of work produced under its own flag, initially under the artistic direction of former Almeida chief Jonathan Kent – last night (9 October 2007, previews from 27 September) with Kent’s production of William Wycherley’s 1675 classic The Country Wife (See News, 9 Jul 2007).

The Restoration comedy revolves around notorious man-about-town Horner who schemes to seduce the women of London society en masse by spreading a rumour that he’s impotent. Meanwhile, the newly-married Pinchwife desperately attempts to keep his naïve country bride from the clutches of predatory London bachelors. When she and Horner meet, events spiral out of his control...

Toby Stephens stars as Horner in a cast that also features David Haig (as Pinchwife), Fiona Glascott (Margery Pinchwife, the country wife of the title), Patricia Hodge (Lady Fidget), Liz Crowther (Mrs Squeamish), Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh (Ms Alithea), Nicolas Day (Sir Jasper Fidget) and Jo Stone-Fewings (Sparkish) as well as Catherine Bailey (Lucy), Timothy Bateson (Boy), Tristan Beint (Dorilant), Janet Brown (Old Lady Squeamish), John Hopkins (Harcourt), David Shaw-Parker (Quack) and Lucy Tregear (Dainty Fidget).

The Country Wife runs until 12 January 2008. The Haymarket’s inaugural season then continues with a revival of Edward Bond’s The Sea (17 January to 19 April 2008) and the world premiere of Boublil and Schonberg musical Marguerite (6 May to 1 November 2008). All of the production are directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Paul Brown, with lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

Overnight critics all made a point in their reviews of the production of enthusiastically welcoming the Haymarket’s “bold” and “valuable” new West End initiative, which they felt has been launched “with a bang”. As for The Country Wife specifically, if some critics worried that it’s played here “slightly over-strenuously” for laughs, none could ultimately deny the “irresistible comic momentum” of this “crowd-pleasing bawdy romp” which is cast “to the hilt” with the best of British stage talent.

  • Michael Coveney on (three stars) - “The new project of a ‘quality’ West End repertoire at the Haymarket – a bold and welcome initiative under the artistic direction of Jonathan Kent – has got off to an impressive, slightly over-strenuous, start in Kent’s handsomely louche production of William Wycherley’s filthy and diverting comedy The Country Wife. This is really an Almeida or National production masquerading as a ‘West End gets hip’ effort … Fiona Glascott’s screechingly unfunny performance … The hard heartbeat of the social whirl does at last emerge in the playing of John Hopkins as Harcourt and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as Alithea, while brilliant Jo Stone-Fewings is a bubble-headed delight as Sparkish and Timothy Bateson mutters grumpily on the sidelines as Horner’s ancient doorman Boy. Patricia Hodge’s frightful wig makes her look far less attractive than she should as a compliant, twinkling Lady Fidget, and I’m not sure that impressionist Janet Brown’s Old Lady Squeamish is nearly nasty enough.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “It’s odd to pass a model cow as you enter the grandest of London’s straight-play theatres. Odd, too, to find the curtain embossed with a naked woman holding a pig as she bestrides yet another acquiescent cow amid a traffic jam … Yet last night I sometimes felt that Kent’s production was as over-the-top as the blonde on the bovine … Paul Brown’s sets, particularly the pink-walled rooms in which Margery is trapped by David Haig’s uxorious Pinchwife, are deliberately garish. And the costumes blend the 18th-century and the modern, leaving the impression that London consists of New Romantics wearing gorgeous Restoration gowns over M&S shirts and trousers. The idea is presumably that the play’s sweeping cynicism about love and honour doesn’t date; but it seems quaint and distracting … Haig is a fine actor, but his performance starts on too high a note, which means he soon gets stuck in the emotional stratosphere ... Even though the play’s satire on London hedonism isn’t exactly Swiftian, couldn’t Kent have given it more toughness, more bite? In short, wasn’t the fun a bit forced?”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “I find the opening production of Wycherley's famously sex-obsessed Restoration comedy an unsubtle, broad-bottomed affair: more crowd-pleasing bawdy romp than dissection of a corrupt society … Fortunately Kent has cast the production to the hilt, but some peculiar choices are made. Since Horner's strategy depends on eunuchoid fakery, it seems odd for Toby Stephens to play him as a swaggering roisterer. By treating the country wife as a screaming, foot-stamping virago, Fiona Glascott also makes you think her proprietorial husband might be well rid of her. Even David Haig, our stage's supreme exponent of bottled frenzy, slightly overdoes Pinchwife's mania: his best moment comes when he turns to the audience and asks ‘what do you think?’ … The sub-plot comes off best thanks to three well-judged performances. Jo Stone-Fewings as Sparkish is all giggling complacency, Elizabeth Dermot Walsh lends his intended the right erotic confusion, and John Hopkins plays her authentic lover with devious passion. Patricia Hodge is also in fine form as the uncontrollably itchy Lady Fidget.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Frankly, when it comes to filth I can’t get enough of it … The piece once again proves that a dirty mind is a joy forever … Jonathan Kent’s production boasts stylish designs by Paul Brown … I have rarely seen Restoration comedy played with such addictively zestful panache. The vivid vigorous prose dialogue is delivered with superb aplomb and the staging brims with comic life and detail … Almost every performance, even the smallest, has its own special energy and shafts of wit, and as a result, the play achieves an irresistible comic momentum. Toby Stephens, who has often struck me as the last of the great buccaneering actors, is in his absolute element as Horner … Patricia Hodge is in peerless form as the chief object of his desire, Lady Fidget … David Haig is in tremendous form as a husband who insanely tortures himself with jealousy, his anguish becoming our comic bliss … Shows don’t come much more disgracefully pleasurable than this.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The Country Wife launches with a bang the Haymarket's valuable new policy of presenting 12-month seasons of plays chosen by a different artistic director each year … It was a sharp decision on the part of Kent and his designer Paul Brown to make those mobile sets, with plenty of farce-related doors, look modishly modern … The anti-hero's gorgeous climactic ‘China’ scene, perhaps the smuttiest in British drama, finds Stephens happily poised to be seduced by Patricia Hodge's far from farcical, yet too subdued and dignified Lady Fidget. Her husband (bland Nicholas Day) bursts in and finds them in a position that looks far from innocent. The scene raises plenty of audience laughter, but it ought to be funnier, sexier and dirtier than these three accomplished, but not that comic actors make it. Stephens, over-loud and blustering, quite misses Horner's sly philandering relish and malice … Kent's production made me laugh a lot but it needs more comic invention to work.”

    - by Terri Paddock & Tom Atkins