The National has a flat-out crowed-pleaser in “Wild Oats,” one of those plays about players you don’t have to be a theatrical to enjoy. Does it contain the comic highs, or the rushes of emotion, of the Shakespeare comedies it so fondly quotes? Not for a moment. But on its own terms, John O’Keeffe’s 1791 play, and Jeremy Sams’ knock-about staging of it, accomplish their amiable aim, leaving an audience feeling jollier about what one character refers to as “this desolate maze of life.”
The plot itself is a maze, though not rearly so dense a one as Congreve’s earlier “The Way of the World,” which joins it in repertory next month. A Hampshire village — one Quaker household in particular — is shaken up by the arrival of Rover (Anton Lesser), an itinerant actor who never uses his own words if he can appropriate Shakespeare’s.
Smitten with gentry woman Lady Amaranth (Sarah Woodward), Rover bumps up against various visitors and locals, most of whom turn out to be related in an ending of multiple surprises that directly anticipates Oscar Wilde.
Rover’s chum Harry Thunder (Alan Cox) unexpectedly encounters his father, Sir George (James Bolam, all comic bombast), whose Quaker niece, Lady Amaranth, is as reserved as the Thunders are thunderous. Throw in a few servants, the Malvolio-like Ephraim (Benjamin Whitrow) among them (“Actors,” he sighs in a disdainful hush); a pig farmer none too subtly called Gammon (David Ryall); and his two comically [7mlumpen[22;27m children (Mark Addy and Mossie Smith), and you have both a cross-section of the English classes and a celebration of community in which the stage turns out to be the great leveler.
What could be more apt for a subsidized theater than a large-scale hymn to theater itself, even if the comedy is sometimes silly — “If he’s a squire, I’m a squirrel” — rather than inspired? “Wild Oats” was a sizable hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company 19 years ago (Alan Howard and Jeremy Irons were in the cast) and may prove the same for the National now, assisted by sets from William Dudley that seem both to answer his previous National design for Ben Johnson’s “Bartholomew Fair” and to tease the audience with visual jokes of its own. (Check out the signage.)
Sams’ production is in the proper boisterous spirit, and comes rife with the comic business — fake mustaches, double takes — both actors and audience adore. Occasionally, Sams, in his National directing debut, overdoes the ingratiation, forcing the show on a viewer like an insistent puppy; the knees-up curtain call, for instance, recalls latterday RSC bows at their most irritatingly frolicsome.
Still, this is yet another production that leaves one amazed at the depth of character-acting talent London has on offer, headed by Andrew Sachs (Manuel from “Fawlty Towers”) and Whitrow as two servants who retain mastery of the pun: “Prelude, interlude, all lewd,” muses the latter. In the small role of sister to the cottager Banks, Anne Reid is very good as O’Keeffe’s rough equivalent to Miss Prism.
The diminutive Lesser may be not quite the innate ham required for the roguish Rover — an American staging would do well to seek out Kevin Kline — but he is still an agreeable guide through a play teeming with mayhem and preordained by its terms of endearment to arrive at mirth.