First, a disclaimer: this reviewer is not completely impartial. I directed the University College Garden Show last year, and it was bloody great. Honest. So how will the Univ Players repeat such blinding success? By the looks of things, with a whole lot of shagging.
Director Esme Hicks is clear that a garden show, above all else, should be fun, and Wycherley’s bawdy 1675 comedy fits the bill perfectly. The main thrust of the plot – and there is plenty of thrusting – is this: renowned seducer Horner (Andy Laithwaite) convinces dim city gentlemen of his impotence, in order to secure unfettered access to their ladies. Upon hearing that the pathologically jealous Pinchwife (Joe Prentice) has married an innocent country girl, he sets out to pinch his, um, wife. As is common in Restoration Comedy, subplots and complications abound, but all this is basically an excuse for bawdy puns, innuendo and pithy asides. It is to the Players’ great credit that they take to this filth with relish. Lines like “I’ll get into her the back way” are deftly handled, and had this currently humourless finalist sniggering in his seat.
Laithwaite made for a strutting, posturing rake as the anti-hero Horner, skirting the line between charming and thoroughly nasty. Flanked by giggling cronies Harcourt (James Skinner) and Dorilant (Ani Mathur), his playground bullying of the unfortunate Pinchwife was verbally brilliant and physically uncomfortable. Prentice’s frequent asides could have been more clearly separated from the rest of his lines, but elsewhere he was wonderfully awkward, flinching at every touch from Horner. Claire Rammelkamp excels as society slut Lady Fidget, showing impeccable comic timing in a botched seduction-turned-tickling-session. Most importantly for such a crowd-pleasing show, the whole cast look like they’re having a whale of a time, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
Hicks promises a visual feast to match the verbal sparring: “we’ve really splashed out on amazing costumes and wigs.” They have made the doors bigger to fit some of the larger dresses, which can only be a good sign. There will be hot and cold drinks on the night, blankets for those not wrapped up warm, and an indoor venue if the weather stays this miserable. In all, The Country Wife looks like perfect Trinity term theatre: pretty, funny and filthy mouthed.