The Orange Tree kicks off its retrospective of James Saunders, who died last year, with the playwright's highly intriguing completion of A Journey to London, a Restoration comedy left as an unfinished fragment by Sir John Vanbrugh when he went off to design Castle Howard and Blenheim. In The Provok'd Wife, Vanbrugh had raised the painful issue of how a woman was to cope with a loveless marriage in an era that offered no possibility of divorce. He let it be known that he intended to make A Journey to London an even more savage indictment of marital inequalities. A witty application of 20th-century hindsight to a late-17th-century situation, this hybrid piece honours Vanbrugh's plan while heightening a sense of the continuities between his day and ours.
The proceedings begin with the arrival in town of a blockhead country MP and family. His all-too-willing wife is soon pursued by a rakish Colonel and influenced by Fiona Mollison's delightfully sparky Lady Loverule, who finds in gambling, late nights and running up vertiginous bills some compensation for the oppressive dullness of home life. Both husbands decide to put a stop to things. But when Saunders takes over the reins of the story, he shifts its focus to the MP's pert and perceptive daughter, Betty (Sophie Trott) and her melancholy companion Martilla (Claudia Elmhirst), a young woman whom the Colonel has abused.
Watchful, unimpressed Betty develops the insight that fashionable London is a gigantic charade directed by men, and in an extraordinarily intense scene she invites Martilla to imagine that they are both naked. Social status, she argues, is an illusion fostered by those who get to hand out the costumes. So why not co-opt illusion as a way of securing redress? At a masked party we see women finally achieving the upper hand.
Perfumed and dressed as her lascivious mother, Betty springs a "bed-trick" on John Hodgkinson's suavely smug Colonel and thus can blackmail him into making a settlement on the wronged Martilla. Meanwhile, by a shrewd leaking of private correspondence, Lady Loverule manages to play off her husband against her admirer and to dictate the terms by which she will give herself to one of them. A vital consideration is that she should have as much spending money as her spouse. How can marriage be a mutually respectful bargain if one partner holds all the chips?
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