William Congreve’s The Way of the World is a classic Restoration drama, dishing out comedy and cruelty in equal measure. Unfaithful husbands scheme to swindle their wives out of their inheritance, Grande Dames are humiliated by imposters posing as suitors, and young lovers are kept apart by social and financial pressures. This is not, perhaps, a world where love can conquer all, but a well-planned pre-nuptial agreement can work wonders.
Lyndsey Turner’s brisk production is filled with bright young things who could belong to the 1690s, the 1920s, or the present day. As promised, Naomi Wilkinson’s multi-faceted design is both visually striking and perfectly attuned to Turner’s timeless setting. The strength of this concept lies in the fact that the plot, characters, and even much of the language of the play transpose effortlessly into a contemporary milieu. Its weakness is a fussy musical prologue that sets an odd tone for the start of the play, which it doesn’t quite recover from until part way through Act One. Other attempts to integrate contemporary music within Tom Mills’ effective sound design are more successful.
Restoration theatre is well known for its celebration of its newly acquired actresses, and this is certainly a play in which the women come out on top. Sinead Matthews is particularly captivating as a quirky Millamant, at once ingénue and worldly wise. Lucy Briggs-Owen is an engaging Mrs Fainall, who evokes genuine pity despite her strength of character, and Deborah Findlay’s Lady Wishfort is both touchingly human and utterly ridiculous, providing most of the evening’s biggest laughs.
The men are less memorable, with the exception of Samuel Barnett’s beautifully timeless fop, Witwoud, whose entrance part way through the male dominated Act One brings the stage truly alive for the first time; and Richard Goulding’s likeably energetic Sir Wilfull. Leo Bill needs to tone down the histrionics in the less rewarding role of Fainall.
Overall, this is a highly enjoyable production, which should only become more so as it plays into its run.