Everything stops dead. Poleaxed by the insanely unlikely yet bizarrely plausible excuse spontaneously dreamed up by his possibly erring wife, David Haig’s enraged Pinchwife looks as if he is about to explode with indecision. He whips round to face the audience and cries, “What do you think?” The roar of laughter that greets his total desperation is testament to the delight engendered by an actor seizing and sharing his moment. Yet the laughs are rarer than they should be in Jonathan Kent’s overemphatic revival of “The Country Wife.”
Kent’s production is racy in every sense of the word. From the opening image of the aptly named Horner (Toby Stephens), seen from behind giving a lecherous over-the-shoulder grin as he stands naked, it’s clear Kent won’t lose sight of the fact that William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy ostensibly about wives’ lives is really all about sex.
Horner lets it be known that having got up to excessive amounts of no good during a visit to France, he has returned a eunuch. In fact, he is nothing of the sort. But his ruse fools husbands thus ensuring that Horner can have his way with any, and possibly every, woman of the town.
Kent’s answer to the lengthy business of following the play’s many characters is to keep his foot on the accelerator. Auds are initially happy to keep pace with the action as boisterous scenes are played with gusto. But the punishing pace becomes exhausting and energy overkill begins to overpower the script’s subtleties.
The chief culprit is Fiona Glascott’s eponymous Margery. The play’s examination of sexual double-standards is entertainingly cold-hearted, but for that to work, it has to be counterbalanced by Margery’s charm, a quality lacking in Glascott’s shrill performance.
Naively married to overbearing whoremaster Pinchwife, Margery spots Horner and wakes up to the possibilities of attractive younger men. But using an accent veering between Ireland and Yorkshire, an uncomfortable-sounding Glascott turns her speeches into screeches. She’s so unsympathetic that her letter scene — the play’s famous greatest hit — goes for nothing.
Paul Brown’s sets and costumes underline the evening’s bold tone. Lush frock coats in electric colors are worn over modern frilly shirts and jeans. Women in plums and pinks sport piled-high backcombed hairpieces rather than authentic period wigs.
Hemmed in on all sides by the wit and guile of his enemies conniving to make him a cuckold, Haig’s Pinchwife hits a rolling boil of enjoyable anger. Stopping just short of going over the top, he makes fury funny.
Stephens attacks the role of Horner with finely focused zest but even he eventually suffers from undue amounts of one-note boisterousness.
By contrast, the best performances are the most relaxed. Jo Stone-Fewings is a delight as the beaming and supremely gullible fob Sparkish. Patricia Hodge redefines archness as Lady Fidget and, as the long-suffering, ancient servant with the play’s most dully dutiful lines, Timothy Bateson is shamelessly watchable.
This is the inaugural production for the Theater Royal Haymarket Company, formed to produce high-end work at this historic theater in the heart of the commercial West End. The unmistakable confidence of the show will see it through its limited run. But having smartly signaled this as a sex comedy that contrasts town and country — the poster has a semi-naked girl sitting side-saddle on a cow in a traffic jam — it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its premise.