Those rural ladies who lunge

The Country Wife | The Crucible, Sheffield
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Is The Country Wife a comedy? The question will seem absurd to anyone laughing - and laughing and laughing - throughout Michael Grandage's buoyant assured production. But, despite the antics of Wycherley's saucy fellows, witless husbands, and scheming jades, the play doesn't give us the defining element of that genre - a happy ending. Though two minor characters make a love-match, everyone else is humiliated, frustrated, and deceived. With the suggestion that they forget their troubles and have a dance, the evening ends with a facsimile of merriment but one wouldn't like to be around when the music stops.

Is The Country Wife a comedy? The question will seem absurd to anyone laughing - and laughing and laughing - throughout Michael Grandage's buoyant assured production. But, despite the antics of Wycherley's saucy fellows, witless husbands, and scheming jades, the play doesn't give us the defining element of that genre - a happy ending. Though two minor characters make a love-match, everyone else is humiliated, frustrated, and deceived. With the suggestion that they forget their troubles and have a dance, the evening ends with a facsimile of merriment but one wouldn't like to be around when the music stops.

Not only Wycherley's plot but his equation of courtship with commerce makes a happy unlikely. Women are either dowries on legs, or rivals in the business of loving. "If we do not cheat women, they will cheat us," warns one character. Denying that he has tried to steal a friend's fiancée, another reassures him that women, like dealers, "to increase their price, report to their customers offers that were never made."

Alithea, the only virtuous female around, makes a good marriage only when others convince her that keeping a promise is plain silly if a better deal comes along. The bored, fashionable ladies who pursue Mr Horner are not motivated by lechery alone but by the desire for novelty and acquisition that fuels their extravagance. This is made especially clear by Susan Burden's Lady Fidget, a rapacious type I'd back in any shopping stakes, who goes for Horner as if he's the last item on the bargain tray.

The other actors, as well, make it clear right away that we're in good hands. As Horner, Dominic West with his curly hair and Mick Jagger lips - a tasty fellow as well as a saucy one - spares us the winks and leers one too often sees in this role. The pleasure he takes in his trickery (pretending impotence, the better to pursue women) is cut with detachment; at times he seems less the star performer than a suave master of the revels, an almost rueful observer of the human comedy.

Richard Cant as Sparkish (complete with pink ribbons on his shoes and frilly breeches) drew the most knowing laughter of the evening with the line "A man can't speak civilly to a woman now but presently she says he makes love to her." Even funnier, if you can bear to laugh at all, was his compliment to an old friend: "I love thee as much as a new acquaintance."

The character with the shortest distance between mouth and id is, of course, Margery Pinchwife, the eponymous wife, who seems to have grown up not just in the country but in a tree. Every type of pleasure and pastime is new to Margery, who grabs at them with the determination of someone bent on meeting sensory overload half-way.

Romping and pouting, the adorable Victoria Hamilton is an over-excited child but a surprisingly sturdy one: when the horrified Pinchwife tries to restrain her, she gives him a whack that practically knocks him to the floor. But Margery's childishness has nothing to do with innocence. At her first kiss from a handsome man, she tells her husband to get lost, and announces that she's ready to live with Horner.

The artless bumpkin and the calculating man-about-town are well-matched in amorality. Keeping his players constantly on the move, having the last character out of the room turn back and deliver a couplet like a happy after-thought, Grandage superbly controls the adagio of this mostly merry play, while letting it breathe enough for us to hear its sombre notes.

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