Jeremy Sams's witty revival of 'Wild Oats' is simply cracking

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The Independent Culture
For those who like theatricality to come wedged within gigantic quotation marks, this has been a peach of a week. First, there was the RSC's Richard III where the villain's political progress was presented very self-consciously as an actor's journey through a part from which he is eventually sacked. Now, at the National, there's Jeremy Sams's wittily knowing production / adaptation of Wild Oats, the 1791 romp by John O'Keeffe. With its plot in which a young drama-disapproving Quaker woman not only becomes smitten by a roving player but develops a belated crush on the works of Shakespeare, this comedy both celebrates theatre and affectionately takes the Thespis (so to speak) out of thespians. Having seen the two productions on successive nights, your reviewer feels a mite bruised from all that conspiratorial nudging across the footlights.

Sams has added quite a few good gags of his own. I doubt, for example, that any of O'Keeffe's pre-luvvie ruffians were heard crying "Not the face!" during a stage-fight. Nor does the original end with the assembled company putting on a potted, hand-to-mouth version of As You Like It. There's a nice thematic aptness to some of the jokes derived from this, such as when Sarah Woodward's delightful heroine strikes up with Rosalind's famous last speech. "It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue," she begins, only to have the mock-apology taken at face-value by her stage- hogging husband who instantly hijacks all the lines from her. More generally, too, As You Like It is an appropriate analogue for a comedy which likewise turns on a beneficent piece of imposture.

Negotiating their way around sliding scenery that has "SLIDING SCENERY" written all over it are a fine characterful cast who bring the colliding worlds of the theatre, the navy, the peasantry and the Quaker brethren to enjoyably droll life. I particularly relished the satirical take on the last of these communities: all that soft-spoken simpering and demure consciousness of democratic virtue. "Verily Mary, I was buffeted by Satan in the shape of a damsel," complains Benjamin Whitrow's hilariously awful Ephraim, when caught with his face in a servant girl's ample cleavage. At least theatre, we gather, is up-front about its shamness and less self- congratulatory about the good it bestows.

As he demonstrated in Two Shakespearean Actors, where he impersonated the great American thespian Edwin Forrest, Anton Lesser excels at depicting men who are driven to perform through some personal problem of identity. Without in any way diminishing the histrionic zest and high-spirits of his portrayal here, Lesser manages to suggest that Rover talks all the time like some demented Dictionary of Dramatic Quotations because life hasn't yet assigned him a script he can recognise as his own. Diminutive of stature, but with an outsize stage personality, he gives an excellent performance,k as do Alan Cox as Harry Thunder and James Bolam who, as the blustering naval father of both of them, hits on a highly expressive euphemism for intimacy in the phrase "cracking walnuts".

Tonight, National Theatre, Lyttleton, South Bank, SE1 (0171-928 2252) in rep