First Night: The Man Of Mode, Olivier Theatre, London

Heartless comedy has a sense of purpose
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The Independent Culture

George Etherege's play may have been written in 1676 and set in the world of fops, belles and beaux, but in Nicholas Hytner's production the place and date are London now - or, rather, right now, in the swingin', happenin', let-it-all-hang-out world of cool guys and fit girls. In other words, this show tries so hard to be hip, sexy, and relevant that its most noticeable quality is its strenuous desire to impress.

Like Sir Fopling Flutter, who affects a haughty expression while crawling sycophantically after every whim of fashion, the show emphasises the coldness and callowness of its philandering hero yet sighs over him like any stagestruck groupie.

There is a great deal of regret and rue in this superficially heartless comedy, but Tom Hardy's Dorimant never stops grinning in self-approbation and swerving his hips in invitation or reminiscence. When a discarded mistress upbraids him, he tells her: "Love gilds us over and makes us show fine things to one another for a time, but soon the gold wears off, and then again the native brass appears."

It's a harsh lesson he's teaching her, and reminding himself, but Hardy is as cocky as if expecting praise for his way with words. At least that line hasn't been changed. Apart from an occasional "gentlewoman" or "nosegay" or "Whence came you?" the play's language has been stripped of 17th-century speech and references, and contemporary ones have been added. And hilarious they are, too.

Instead of saying he has just been at Whitehall, Sir Fopling now says he has come from Shoreditch, and when he complains about his hostess's candles, he tells her to use only Diptyque. How they roared in the stalls! The laughters, however, may just have been grateful to have heard the lines. For this cast is largely unintelligible, a grave problem in a play that has such a complex plot of crisscrossing and mismatched lovers. The semaphore-signal acting - lots of waving and whirling arms - doesn't really compensate, but then it doesn't look very realistic either among English people.

True, a third of the actors in this large cast are Indian, but their characters' names haven't been changed and we are presumably not supposed to notice that Lady Woodvill wears a sari. As Mrs Loveit, Nancy Carroll looks kitted out for a musical comedy in Rita Hayworth hair, platform shoes, and a racetrack-checked trouser suit, and her performance is a bit musical-comedy as well, but she enlivens every scene she's in by resembling a real woman, or at least a real actress.

Vicki Mortimer's hideous costumes and sets strand us in a non-world of a bachelor pad with mirrored walls, a creepily trendy restaurant, and a lingerie boutique (the last two are managed by, respectively, Lady Townley and Mrs Loveit, now working women with a sense of purpose unknown to Etherege's dowagers and flirts).

The heart of the play, though, seems to be in the wordless sections that Hytner has added to cover scene changes - a group of girls in red underwear or bare-chested lads with butterfly nets fixed to their bottoms grope themselves or jump about and scowl - a performance I found funnier than any of the label-checks. Why didn't Hytner go all the way and change the title? He could have called it The Empty Suit.

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