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The Tart and the Vicar's Wife (tour – Stevenage)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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There’s an interestingly serious comedy trying to escape from the farce trappings of Joan Shirley’s The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife. A woman has married her boss, hoping to compensate with a beautiful country house, a lavish life-style and intelligent children for the upbringing which is revealed quite late on in the play. Her problem is that he’s left his gleaming career as a top-executive in an international oil company, found God and taken orders.

His Damascene conversion was the result of a horrendous car accident. Now he’s happy as a country parson, though still living in their own home rather than in the run-down vicarage. She desperate to keep the house which means so much to her and writes erotic stories under a pen-name to pay some of the bills. This is not to her husband’s taste, but he can’t really suggest any viable alternatives. When he goes away on a course, at least one way of making money (lots of money) presents itself through a back-packing American girl and a man who has bought the local manor when he won a fortune on the lottery. That house, unfortunately, has a resident ghost, and he wants he exorcised,

Also involved are two neighbours, who also have money worries. One runs the local antiques shop and hopes to keep her son at his expensive school, even though her husband has left without a forwarding address, let alone maintenance. The other is a farmer’s wife; he appreciates the sons she has given him but not their daughter, who’s musical and needs a cello if she is ever to fulfil her ambition for a professional career. Enter the other title character – and perhaps you can guess what happens next. And after that.

The women largely carry the play, and they’re nicely contrasted. At first I wasn’t sure about Nicola Weeks’ Sindy, but (as teenagers can do) the character and the portrayal grow on you as the action progresses. There’s a good portrait of the fraught but elegant Pru by Sarah Jane Buckley and a deliciously bucolic one of Kate by Suzie Chard slowly blossoming from a butt into a beauty. Linda Armstrong as Glenda Parry begins sharp and comes dangerously near to flat before the end of the first act; the character twists and turns and doesn’t conjure up quite as much sympathy as she should.

Blonde, svelte and the very model of a high-class working-girl is Danielle Johnson’s Selina. This is a professional who one senses could be as ruthless with those who attempt to cheat as honest with those who accept her terms. The vicar (Marcus Hutton as Robert Parry) and his colleague (Daniel Crowder as Henry Benson are pleasant plot-propellers. Joe Carpenter is a much more dynamic force; Matt Healy gives us the core of a rough diamond who knows he’s been undeservedly lucky and hopes that happiness can not just follow but stay with him.

Ian Dickens’ direction and David North’s farmhouse-kitchen set are both a bit angular; I wanted more of a sense of flow as people come and go. There should be a flavour of the Aga-saga as well as of the open-house which any clergyman’s home necessarily becomes. As it stands, it’s quite a long play, though the pace picks up in the second half. Farce takes its improbabilities seriously. The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife hovers on a knife-edge between the comedy of the situations presented and the tragedies which have developed within its characters. Knives can cut both ways.


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