Theatre

The Modern Husband Northcott Theatre, Exeter
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The Independent Culture
Mr Modern is willing to prostitute his wife to the old seducer Lord Richly in order to escape prison, but did not foresee the complication that the ignoble lord, having tried and tired of Mrs Modern's charms, would demand the seduction of the innocent Mrs Belamant, a virtual Deaconess of purity. The chink in the plot is that Mr Belamant has romped with Mrs Modern himself, so weave on, O plot upon counterplot, and squeeze until the pips squeak.

Paul Godfrey has taken a segment of Henry Fielding's play The Modern Husband and transferred five of its characters into a version of his own, written in the style of his 18th-century predecessor. The result is no romp.

There are asides, overhearings and confidences to the audience aplenty, but the text is a serious examination of the society of the time which does no one any credit. Blackmail and bribery are everyday weapons to justify seduction, deceit and revenge. There are strict codes of behaviour that need to be navigated for the sake of appearances, but, as Mrs Modern says at the end, "Who wants to be virtuous and old?"

The production, by Nick Philippou for the Actors Touring Company, is measured and steady. This is no farce fluster, but an incisive attack on moral values and every word needs to be heard. The actors play in the Restoration fashion, but not for fun. Like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this is a deadly game. Penury and prison are the likely result of a failure to corrupt the upright Mrs Belamant.

The set, by Kathy Strachan, is inspired. Two enormous full-length mirrors expand the stage and witty projections on a screen comment on the text. Two large bawdy paintings hang in the seducer's lair. Entrances are two movable arches, where the combatants can lurk in order to overhear the latest twist in the plot.

The acting is calm and deadly. Ben Ellison-Campbell plays the desperately scheming husband, and Shelley King swallows insults as his devious spouse. Gerrard McArthur plays the lascivious lord with dry menace. Richard Cant and Jessica Lloyd are the comparative innocents in the affairs. As for the playwriting, I think Fielding himself would have approved. The text may lack some rumbustiousness, but it offers both wit and some deadly truths about the human condition.

n 'The Modern Husband' is touring: Dublin Theatre Festival (00353 18748525) to 14 Oct; then Canterbury, Worthing, Oundle, Tunbridge Wells, Jersey, Guernsey and the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith (21 Nov-2 Dec)

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