First Night: The Country Wife, Theatre Royal, London

Lewd, silly romp keeps its end up despite dark plot
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The Independent Culture

What kind of man prefers to be thought impotent by the public in order to enjoy the illicit delights in private that are the reward of this humiliating, false reputation? The answer is a sex addict of a very peculiar, not to say sociopathic, bent.

This is the prank played by Horner, the anti-hero rake in William Wycherley's 1675 comedy The Country Wife. The darkness and danger of the character aren't, however, given their due in Jonathan Kent's tremendously enjoyable but determinedly upbeat account.

In a production that mixes period and contemporary, flouncy frock-coats and denim jeans, Toby Stephens portrays Horner as a pantomime cad impersonated by Rik Mayall (with touches of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen). With his cheeky rotters smile, he seems to be adding "Restoration Rake" to the Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Milkman etc series rather than offering a study of the nihilism of ruthlessly amoral desire.

The production marks the launch of an admirable project to revive the fortunes of the straight play in the West End dominated by musicals and film spin-offs.

Three million pounds have been invested in Kent who, as artistic director of the Haymarket season, will also stage Edward Bond's The Sea, and, oops, a musical. This debut outing is euphoric but, in some ways, crucially incomplete.

The revival has a huge and infectious confidence and is often delightfully inventive. Patricia Hodge is hilarious as Lady Fidget, one of the female hypocrites who pretend to virtue while being drawn by lust and curiosity to Horner's loins like flies to dung. There's a hysterically funny scene, writhed on a modern recliner, where she interrogates Horner about his "honour" – a code word for "sexual potency". Deliciously, it looks as though we are watching Lady Thatcher get more and more aroused as she establishes her interlocutor's complete credentials as a monetarist: "A fanatical monetarist, you say? Better and better."

Recent productions of The Country Wife have hammered home the viciousness and misogyny of the piece at the expense of the comedy.

It's arguable that this production tips the balance too far in the opposite direction. But there are lovely performances (David Haig loses pints of body fluid as the frantically jealous Pinchwife) and there are inspired touches. The naive, horny country wife (excellent Fiona Glascott) lugs around a huge pink rabbit won at a fair and its splayed legs make her look as though she is wearing her pudenda outside her body, Pompidou Centre-style. Its lewd and its deliciously silly. All in all, it is a great romp but is only a partial response to a dark play.

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