A comedy of bedside manners

THEATRE The Relapse The Swan, Stratford
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The Independent Culture
Ian Judge's fine, wittily knowing account of The Relapse goes to bed in a big way. Ornate beds, with people on or in them, feature prominently in the new production at the Swan, to an extent far from authorised by the stage directions in the text. This might not displease Vanbrugh, though; after all, his great Restoration comedy was written as a direct riposte to, and subversion of, a play (Cibber's Loves Last Shift) that had piously commended "the chaste rapture of a virtuous love". The Relapse returns us to the real world where, though there may be heroines (like Jennifer Ehle's Amanda) who win in the fight against temptation, adulterers are more plentiful, operate with impunity, and have a generally less punishing time of it.

Judge's bedside manner, so to speak, is sly and intelligent from the outset. Instead of coming on to the stage reading as Vanburgh's text specifies, Hugh Quarshie's Loveless extols the philosophy that says "Our heaven is seated in our minds!" while lying half-naked between the sheets. For all its square-jawed demonstrativeness, he sounds so unconvinced about "the warm pleasing fire of lawful love" that when a female head emerges from under the covers, you assume it must belong to a mistress. It's actually the property of his wife, Amanda, but the staging has a droll anticipatory effect, popping into your mind what is clearly on his.

The production uses a thrust stage to establish a teasing complicity between the audience and the witty, silkily seductive reprobates on stage. Nowhere is this more the case than with Susan Tracy's superb Berinthia, the youngish widow who gets back in league with a former lover so that they can be of mutual assistance in seducing Loveless and wife. With her conspiratorially arch looks and radiant, gracious smiles, she defies the audience not to find her the winning face of cynical worldliness. "But now what shall I do with myself!" she soliloquises, tossing her head in a beautifully bogus display of girlish bemusement, as though she weren't counting on Loveless to steal into her chamber at any moment and offer her the chance to put up some token resistance.

In her supreme self-assurance, if in nothing else, Berinthia has affinities with Lord Foppington, the sublimely narcissistic new peer and the dominant figure in the play's other plot. Resplendent in a wig that resembles an unfortunate cross between a rug run rampant and terrorist topiary, Victor Spinetti's hilarious Foppington somehow manages to remain cocooned in a madly misplaced sense of his own dignity even when a misunderstanding forces him to enter mud-spattered and on all fours. "I do use to appear a little more dgag," he explains, false eyelashes fluttering on either side of Spinetti's ski-jump nose.

As Hoyden, the daughter in the rich country bumpkin family he wants to marry into, excellent Lorraine Ashbourne would make Gracie Fields look like Edith Evans in the drawing-room deportment department. But what she and Christopher Benjamin as her father valuably bring out is the way these characters tend to get the better of the people who take them for fools. Indeed, it's a very well-cast show, even if, amusingly, the nurse, whose anecdotes about what it was like to breast-feed Hoyden are an embarrassment to the girl, here sports a plastic cleavage.

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