REVIEW: The Provoked Wife, The Swan Theatre, RSC

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Jonathan Slinger and Alexandra Gilbreath as the Brutes. Photos: Pete Le May

Gill Sutherland reviews The Provoked Wife, which runs at The Swan Theatre until 7th September

Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull

Did you see the guests at this year’s Met Ball – the infamous New York red carpet bash that went with a ‘camp’ theme this year? The Kardashians were there of course; pop star Katy Perry rocked up as a large fully-working chandelier; while Lady Gaga upstaged all with an outlandishly massive, neon fuschia frock that covered half of Manhattan.

None of them, however, could cock a snook at Caroline Quentin’s outrageously preening and self-aggrandising Lady Fancyfull in this brilliant production of The Provoked Wife. What a horror she is, but it is such fun watching her, especially as she is – rather cruelly – wobbled from her pedestal as the play trots along.

She is not alone in being a compelling vision. Each character, wonky in their own way, is put in the spotlight (quite literally most have a solo spot, just them and the audience, which seems modern but obviously isn’t), giving their viewpoint to the morally tawdry tale as it unfolds. Under the quick-witted direction of Phillip Breen the dazzling cast brings each of their characters to life with keen comic timing and empathetic heart. Mark Bailey’s costume designs are a particular delight – restoration finery with just a hint of panto underbelly.

On the face of it John Vanbrugh’s 1697 comedy follows in the joyfully stomping footsteps of earlier restoration comedies, and in particular it is in the style of a ‘marriage comedy’ as exemplified by plays such as She Would If She Could (George Etheridge, 1668) which contrasts a failing marriage with the courtship of the wife’s two nieces by a pair of young gallants.

Here the virtuous Lady Brute (Alexandra Gilbreath, as gorgeous and seductive as ever) is provoked to infidelity by her drunken, surly and abusive husband Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger, a more convincingly putrid fellow there never was). They were married in haste – she for money, he for sex – and now the Brutes are shackled by wedlock but looking for diversions.

While he goes off drinking with his reprobate pals (among them Les Dennis as twizzle-mustached and drunk of brain Colonel Bully), Lady Brute decides to spice up her love life with a younger man, Constant (Rufus Hound, an earnest and likable portrayal). At the same time Constant’s friend, Heartfree (John Hodgkinson is simply blinding as the misogynist turned lover), falls for Lady B’s niece Bellinda (a sparky and intelligent performance from Natalie Dew).

Sarah Twomey also puts in a spot-on performance as Lady F’s Allo-Allo channeling French maid.

So will the jealous Lady Fancyfull mess everything up? Yes. Will it end badly for the boozy Brute? Another yes.

But this play is no simple romp where the baddies get their just deserts and the goodies skip off into the sunset. It turns on a sixpence, from hilarious physical comedy to a rape scene, and helter-skelters towards an end that slaps you round the face with a wet kipper – not in a funny way, it’s always a shock to realise life is not a fairytale.

The production runs at over three hours, and there’s been some moaning about that from other critics, but I wouldn’t waste a drop of it. The language and banter is a delight, and the plot races along. Breen is especially good at making the extraneous-to-the-plot bits indispensably brilliant. For example, Lady F’s parlour scene that involves an elaborate opera tableaux; or Brute’s skirmishes with the law while dressed in his wife’s clothes. All golden, captivating moments.

Back on the Met Ball red carpet Lady Gaga does a reverse butterfly: she pops out from under her giant Cinderella-like gown to reveal Rocky Horror Show-type undies – suspenders and bra on show – and proceeds to writhe around stripper-style. Underneath the pomp humans are strange dysfunctional things, just ask Vanbrugh.