Although in my non-blogging life I inhabit the world of ‘new writing,’ one of my secret passions has always been restoration comedy. But amongst the pretty frocks and byzantine misdealings (and excellent jokes and good fun), there’s usually a heteronormative reduction of women to marriageable/unmarriageable objects which fits badly with my feminist anarchist Royal-Court-Upstairs credentials.
I’ve long praised Paul Miller’s work in establishing the Orange Tree Theatre as a must-visit home for some of the most radical and brave new writing in London, while not alienating their core Richmond-dwelling audience base. Alongside boundary-pushing work like Pomona and An Octoroon, they have quietly captured the market in feminist deconstructions of restoration comedy, the genre I never knew I needed. A couple of years ago I reviewed the joyous Lottery of Love for this blog. Now the chaise longue has been dug out of storage for this re-imagining of William Congreve’s 1693 marriage farce The Double Dealer.
The production starts with the actors as actors, preparing the stage and audience for what’s to come: a wedding, or a play? Both? Is there a line between the real and the fictional? A newly-written prologue warns/reassures the audience that the plot doesn’t really matter, to sit back and enjoy the ride. Indeed, the plot is almost impenetrable: a young couple plan their wedding, but various baddies plot and scheme to split them apart (then plot and scheme against each other), only to be exposed and expelled via the simple plot device of forgetting to check behind curtains.
Characterisation is not this play’s strong point, and what makes the Double Dealer hard to connect with is the really quite extraordinary stupidity of the characters, so trusting of their Iago-like friends they ignore being flatly told, “Hey, I’m plotting to break up your marriage and have you cast out of your family!” I suppose there’s a subtext about the human tendency towards believing what we want to believe based on emotive reasoning while turning a blind eye to evidence and what’s objectively best for us (and thank god the production didn’t try to turn it into some kind of tired Trump/Brexit metaphor). But it doesn’t quite go far enough, and certain scenes, like a woman staging her own faked rape, straddle an uneasy line between physical comedy and problematic gender politics.
What saves the production is the acting. Edward MacLiam steals the show as the gleefully mendacious Maskwell (because he wears his lies like a mask, geddit?), turning in a performance versatile enough to encompass the character’s intelligence and manipulation while remaining panto-villain comedic enough that his eventual fall doesn’t feel too silly. Zoë Waites’s multi-roles to perfection flipping (sometimes within the same scene) between the naive innocent heroine Cynthia, and the villainous Lady Touchwood. Jenny Rainsford, Jonathan Coy, and Simon Chandler also turn incredible and layered performances while embracing the physical comedy and sheer silliness of this play, while the always watchable Jonathan Broadbent is sadly underused.
Overall, an excellent production of a poor play.
The Double Dealer is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until 26 January. https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-double-dealer/gallery