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REVIEW: The Rover at the RSC

So macho... Joseph Millson in The Rover
So macho... Joseph Millson in The Rover

He’s in like Flint, cool as Shaft, hearty as Brian Blessed, sozzled as Jack Sparrow, swaggering as Errol Flynn, showy as Flash Gordon, boastful as Mr Boombastic… he is Willmore, the titular hero/antihero of Aphra Behn’s 1677 comedy with a dark underbelly, The Rover.

Every braggart, laddish hero and loveable rogue is boiled down into Aphra Behn’s brilliant lead character. Thirty years after Jeremy Irons swashbuckled onto the stage in the Swan’s first season, it is being revisited with an equally daftly manly Joseph Millson. He is exuberant and magnificent in the role; both he and his bushy beard give a wonderfully fulsome performance.

Of course we really shouldn’t like him. But Lez Brotherston’s saucy costumes and faux colonial set, low-lit with twinkling fairy lights, bewitched us; then the glorious salsa band, that started titillating the audience before the show began, made us forget ourselves.

Like the ladies of the play we are, despite ourselves, beguiled by the errant charms of the Rover. He has come to a foreign land to carnival, to party with some soldier mates, and woos two women, the courtesan Angellica (Alexandra Gilbreath exudes sexual prowess) and rich girl virgin Hellena (a mesmerising Faye Castelow).

Which woman will tame him? Who will attempt to kill him? Will the women abandon all to be with him? Will Hellena be forced into a nunnery and her sister Florinda into an arranged marriage?

There’s plenty of twists and turns, including love triangles, in this glorious restoration romp. And while the play is by no means short, director Loveday Ingram never relents on pace; it’s a gloriously wild ride, with a few unexpected spins and bumps.

The second half is a darker affair. The soldiers’ jerky friend, Ned Blunt, turns from naive buffoon to psychotic would-be rapist (perfectly captured by Leander Deeny) after he is duped by a call girl. The sexual politics aren’t straight forward. But what comes over in this dazzlingly entertaining production is no matter how much we may swoon over Willmore, it’s the girls we are really rooting for.

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