Sir John Vanbrugh only saw two of his plays performed in his lifetime, The Relapse and The Provok'd Wife. But on his death in 1726, a three-act fragment of a third, A Journey To London, was found among his papers. Vanbrugh had planned to make the work a damning indictment of traditional marital roles, intending to climax with the irreconcilable breakdown of a marriage. However, the playwright's friend Colley Cibber ignored his wishes, giving the piece a conventionally happy ending and staging it in 1728 as The Provok'd Husband.
That, though, was not the end of the story. In 1986, the Orange Tree's tireless artistic director Sam Walters invited resident dramatist James Saunders to compose a new ending for Vanbrugh's original. Now, to mark Saunders' passing in 2004, the theatre has revived that collaboration, adding a further chapter to a saga that spans 280 years and straddles four centuries.
Watching Walters' frothy production, with its hoisted petticoats, heaving cleavages and colourful array of fops, dandies and yokels, it would be helpful to know precisely where Vanbrugh ends and Saunders begins. The set-up is all the former's: a culture-clash scenario involving a country bumpkin turned "parliament man" (John Paul Connolly) whose visit to the Big Smoke sees him and his family fall prey to its many vices. How this situation is developed, though, is Saunders' domain. Yet while his embellishments give this Restoration comedy an intriguingly modern slant, it's curious to note that he, like Cibber before him, stops short of what Vanbrugh envisioned.
Yes, Saunders bolsters the female parts by having the playful Lady Loverule (Fiona Mollison) manipulate her exasperated husband (Peter Forbes) into competing with her lover (Paul Goodwin) for her affections; he also gives the much-abused Martilla (Claudia Elmhirst) an articulate and moving speech of defiance that puts her on a par with The Provok'd Wife's Lady Brute. In addition, in a plot development that would have had the theatre closed in Vanbrugh's day, he has country girl Betty Headpiece (Sophie Trott) use her own ravishment as a ploy to trap her seducer, the wonderfully named Colonel Courtly (John Hodgkinson).
Of the Ibsenesque denouement Vanbrugh imagined, though, there is no sign, suggesting the Orange Tree's desire for a jolly, crowd-pleasing romp outweighed the will to honour its creator's intentions. Still, there's no denying A Journey To London offers two-and-a-half hours of lively, well-upholstered entertainment, performed with gusto by a cast of West End proportions.