Theatre: Labour without love

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The Independent Culture
london classic Theatre Company are not a high-profile outfit, but they stick in my mind because a couple of years ago they burrowed into the dusty back catalogue of the Restoration dramatist William Wycherley and surfaced with a fresh, incisive revival of Love In A Wood, his first play, a disarmingly unsentimental expose of the nocturnal cruising habits of both sexes in the bosky darkness of St James's Park.

Now, under the same director, Michael Cabot, the company turns its attention to Wycherley's best known work, The Country Wife, where the sex war is even more savagely fought. With his sweet-faced, square-jawed demeanour, Andrew Loudun's Horner may put you in mind, at times, of a heart-throb vicar rather than a heartless rake, but at first you feel that could all be part of the character's studied camouflage. Horner, a man with more problems keeping it down than getting it up, has had the ingenious idea of spreading the rumour that he has been rendered impotent by an operation for the pox. He's now a big hit with jealous husbands and he can identify women positively gagging for illicit sex, since they are precisely the ones who recoil in disgust from his sad condition.

Clear, intelligent, but underpowered and underfunded-looking, the production never properly evokes the feel of this unlovely society. It is more successful at presenting the uncomprehending novice who comes into collision and then into collusion with it.

Like The London Cuckolds, which has been a hit this year at the National, The Country Wife is a Restoration comedy where the naivety of a rustic newcomer hilariously threatens to blow the gaff on the whole complicated urban game of subterfuge and hypocrisy between the sexes. As Marjery, the eponymous young spouse of Pinchwife, Amy Bayless is a delightful mix of creamy-skinned guilelessness and dawning duplicity. In her way, she's as much impelled by appetites as the sophisticated Horner, but there's nothing jaded or cerebral about her pursuit of gratification. Full of freshness and comically accident-prone spontaneity, Bayless is very funny as she shows you the artful beginning to skitter into Marjery's artlessness.

Calculatedly, the ending brings no sense of release. Horner's lie is unexploded; Marjery remains stuck with her husband; and, in Cabot's production, signalling the waste and frustration of this return to the status quo, a portrait of a pretty young woman swings round to show the likeness of a withered, sourfaced matron.

Until 22 August (0181 340 3488). A version of this review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper.

Paul Taylor