The Country Wife, Haymarket, London<br/>Dealer's Choice, Menier Chocolate Factory, London<br/>Shadowlands, Wyndham's, London

Desperate 17th-century housewives in a raucous romp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jonathan Kent has had plenty of money to splash on The Country Wife, but he's doing his damnedest to make it back. Some of the cast in Wycherley's wicked comedy act with elegance and wit, among them John Hopkins as a beautifully spoken fop with a heart and Patricia Hodge as a "person" who lingers, purring, over the word, to emphasise that she has evolved beyond anything so base as sex.

Her companions, however, two desperate 17th-century housewives, belong to the rival gang of actors who show us only infantile vanity and rage. From his first appearance, standing naked with his back towards us and grinning over his shoulder, Toby Stephens's Horner never stops announcing, "what a clever boy am I!". But it seems unlikely that the daring, vicious scheme of claiming to be impotent in order to fool husbands ever originated in the bonce of this skipping, stamping, back-slapping lightweight.

As the innocent wife, Fiona Glascott, instead of unfolding like a flower, shrieks and leaps like a cheerleader, and her husband, David Haig, is monotonously apoplectic. There are laughs about lust but none of its unsettling heat and, despite the many references to dishonour and "the pox", no sense of its cost.

Mingling the quaint and the raucously up to date, Paul Brown's sets and costumes likewise solicit audiences of opposing tastes. Kent may think it good business to cast a wide net, but is it sensible to lure so many punters if you end up irritating half of them?

In his revival of Dealer's Choice, Sam West runs a far tighter ship; this drama of male competitiveness and self-deception played out round a poker table is as lacerating as it is bitterly comic. Patrick Marber's 1995 work still suffers from the one-sided contest between the masterful restaurant owner, Stephen, and his weak son. But Samuel Barnett's flawless performance as the latter has so much humanity that one ends up pitying him as much as the emotionally maimed Stephen, who, doling out lessons in losing, says he is teaching the other players (his employees!) how to be men.

The entire cast is magnificent, but most notable are Roger Lloyd Pack, as an outsider with the knowledge that loneliness is power, and Malcolm Sinclair as Stephen, in whom the balance of ruthlessness and compassion, frankness and mystery is as meticulous, and as fragile, as a house of cards. The design, lighting, and strange engine-room noises thicken the atmosphere of this basement hell where no one lights up but you sure can smell smoke.

With Nigel Hawthorne as C S Lewis and Jane Lapotaire as his late-life love, the abrasive American Joy Gresham, Shadowlands at its premiere in 1990 was seen as a heartbreaking drama about our relations with God and one another. William Nicholson's play remains skilful and entertaining, but now, with Michael Barker-Caven's miscast leads and cloying production, it looks thin, less a matter of philosophy or religion than of rather basic psychology. Lewis "falls in love" with Gresham when her terminal cancer lets him vanquish his helplessness at his mother's early death. Janie Dee is, as ever, enormously – and, in this case, excessively – appealing, and the suave Charles Dance seems always to be turning his face away to hide his lack of tears.

Click here for The Country Wife website

Click here for Dealer's Choice website

'The Country Wife' (0844-844 2353), to 12 Jan; 'Dealer's Choice' (020-7907 7060); 'Shadowlands'(0870 950 0925)

Comments