Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

This Rude, Rough Romp Is Far Too Pretty to Stir Much Passion; First Night

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

This Rude, Rough Romp Is Far Too Pretty to Stir Much Passion; First Night

Article excerpt

Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

The Relapse, Olivier Theatre

TREVOR NUNN is surprisingly behaving as if he were the National's resident cosmetic artist, charged with prettifying plays. He has camouflaged or painted over the rude, raw spots that distinguish The Relapse, John Vanbrugh's 1696 comedy in which sexual manners come rough and ready for the drop of a skirt, and morals are tossed aside like last year's fashions.

Nunn's longwinded production, in which he's assisted by Stephen Rayne, is a sumptuous, old-fashioned farcical romp with song and dance. It casts a sentimental glow over cynical sexual intrigues, the artful making of one marriage and the subversion of another. When it comes to desire's hot flush the temperature rises no higher than cool. And the lighthearted marriage subplot, with Alex Jennings's pantomimic tour de farce performance as that preening fantasist and narcissist of Jeffrey Archer-like proportions, Lord Foppington, threatens to overwhelm the main action.

The production's outdated air owes something to Sue Blane's set which transforms the Olivier into a dainty mockup of its late 17th century equivalent. There's a false proscenium curtain and boxes in which period beaux cluster, while atmospheric backcloths and sliding panels set the period scene.

But all this prettiness is misjudged.

Vanbrugh's play is calculated to cause unease. It was written as satirical reproof to Colley Cibber's preposterously wholesome comedy in which the whoring Loveless is penitently reunited with his wife, Amanda, after 10 years screwing around.

Vanbrugh defied the punitive, new morality of William and Mary's reign. He brought Loveless back to life and showed him relapsing into his old sexual ways, after falling for Amanda's cousin Berinthia. There's something disturbingly modern about the subsequent intrigue in which Berinthia schemes to help Mr Worthy seduce and distract Amanda, while she herself gets her hands on Loveless. …

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