BWW Review: THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH, Swan Theatre
Next up at the RSC's Swan Theatre is an oft-forgotten Restoration comedy by Mary Pix; originally titled The Beau Defeated, Jo Davies' production shifts the focus onto the widowed protagonist with the new title The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich. It comes in the same year as two new productions of another Restoration comedy, The Country Wife, are unveiled at Southwark Playhouse and Chichester's Minerva Theatre - and plays alongside The Duchess of Malfi and Macbeth (in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre).
Mrs Rich is the widow of a very successful banker, but yearns to be a "woman of quality"; all her time and fortune is spent trying to perfect the airs of a lady, and acquire the necessary items to raise her above mere "citizen" status. She decides that the only thing for it is to marry again, but this time to a man with a title - whether he has money of his own is of little importance to Mrs Rich, as she can easily provide for them both. She has set her sights on local nobleman Sir John Roverhead and is convinced they are on the same wavelength, but is the charming gallant all that he seems?
Alongside her is another, more cautious, widow (Lady Landsworth) who has found what she thinks is her ideal second husband, but lays plans to test his honour before revealing herself to him. Little does she know that he is the younger son of the recently deceased Lord Clerimont, who finds himself in a state of poverty as he was accidentally disinherited in favour of his wayward older brother. Disguises and dishonesty threaten a happy ending for everyone.
If Restoration Comedy is making something of a comeback, it couldn't be at a more welcome moment. Understandably, political and dystopian plays continue to be vital and popular choices for playwrights and directors, but it's also important to temper that with a bit of laughter. Just as the Stuarts sought relief after experiencing turbulent times of their own (the English Civil War leading to a decade of republican Puritanism), it's quite right that we find brief distractions from our modern day troubles. It also serves as a great endorsement for 2018 as the "Year of the Woman", as Lady Landsworth demonstrates her independence and intelligence, whilst Mrs Rich eventually manages to twist the system to her advantage.
It does take a little while to start bubbling along nicely, thanks to the many strands of plot and subplot that must be introduced in the opening few scenes, but once the audience is familiar with everything the laughs come thick and fast. Grant Olding has composed some songs for Mrs Rich, to allow her to share her thoughts with the audience - this is a great way to slightly break up what is quite a wordy play, and works well alongside the musical scene transitions that smoothly adjust the set ready for the next piece of action. Colin Richmond's designs combine traditional period elegance with hints of Sofia Coppola's outlandish Marie Antoinette, courtesy of Mrs Rich.
The whole company is brilliant, though is often at risk of being upstaged by Theia and Lossie when they make their appearances as Elder Clerimont's dogs Theo and Lossie; Greg Barnett's Belvoir is hilariously targeted whenever they set eyes on each other. Laura Elsworthy is excellent as Mrs Rich's free-thinking maid Betty, who also assists in Lady Landsworth's romantic affairs and is a good deal wiser than her mistress. Tam Williams perfectly captures the foppery of Sir John Roverhead (the physical comedy with his wig is particularly fun), as well as the more roguish elements of his character.
The title character could not be in safer gloved hands than those of Sophie Stanton. She is an absolute dream from beginning to end, allowing Mrs Rich to be laughed at when her ridiculous behaviour spirals beyond all comprehension, but her perseverance does endear her to the audience - and you can feel the sympathy for her as she finally realises she is being made a fool of. Stanton's performance cements her position as one of our finest stage actresses.
It's always a treat to discover a rarely played classic, and this production ticks every box as far as I'm concerned. Not only does it look and sound stunning, but it's backed up by some creative direction and memorable performances. You'd be a fool to miss out!
Picture credit: Helen Maybanks