Sam Walter's jewel box of a theatre, The Orange Tree, has rediscovered another slight, but exquisite gem, in its new production Simplicity, a restoration comedy by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The author, who died in 1782, was an intriguing character. In fact you could say she was the 18 Century's answer to a cross between Dorothy Parker and Germaine Greer.
Her barbed wit (at a time when women were not expected to exhibit such), upset numerous contemporary celebrities. She was an aristocrat and a well-travelled woman of letters, a self-educated scholar concerned with women's education, a conservative political journalist and a medical pioneer who helped spearhead the smallpox inoculation campaign in Britain.
Simplicity is a loose translation of Marivaux' A Game of Love and Chance. It is a lively little comedy which - in restoration convention - concerns two young aristocratic lovers, the subject of an arranged marriage by their parents, who, having not yet met, disguise themselves as their servants to test their prospective spouse's ardour. As Prince Charming and Dandini (so to speak) exchange places, misunderstandings abound until all is happily revealed.
In Auriol Smith's charming and beautifully dressed production, the piece is played at a smart pace, and the witty and elegant language, by and large, is delivered with considerable panache and an obvious delight in the material. Sam Dowson's simply, but appealingly, bedecked set hints at the elements of chance in love, with a stage subtly referenced to a chess board and playing cards. As always, The Orange Tree, makes virtue out of vice in its small, in the round, playing space.
The more I see of young Octavia Walters (who plays the flirty, blue blooded Belinda), the more I am impressed with her gift to perform so effectively in the round. Even with first class direction (as here), this is no mean feat, yet wide-eyed Walters in her expression and body language, as well as her comical asides, really manages to connect with the audience. Last season, she was outstanding as Polly Peachum in Havel's Beggar's Opera and I really look forward to seeing more of her this year.
As Lucy, Belinda's maid, Rebekah Staton, also delvers an impeccable performance in dialect hilariously veering between Fenella Fielding and Jane Horrocks. The two girls make a delightful duo. Their male consorts are played effectively by Gyuri Sarossy as the noble Gaymore, and Tom Mckay as his footman, William. The latter particularly diverting when pretending, as an effete fop, to be his own master.
A word also for Terence Hardiman who lives up to his appellation - Sir John Hearty - as he bounces around the stage, tiger-like, delighting in the mayhem he has caused by setting up the innocent charade. He too takes fine command of the stage.
This production is pure entertainment throughout its relatively short playing time, and is a sure fire winner.