Theatre: Laughing all the way to the sofa

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The Independent Culture
THE IDEA that the fate of dramatic characters can hang by a thread is played with in Arthur Wing Pinero's 1904 comedy A Wife Without a Smile. At the boathouse, to which he is invited by a group of friends, Seymour Rippingill has rigged up an erotic barometer. A doll dangles from the ceiling on a wire that he has attached to the bottom of the sofa in the room above. Any ardour expressed on that unseen couch is registered by the dancing and yo-yoings of this toy. Its perky gyrations divert the tittering observers but grossly offended public taste at the time, being likened by one commentator to "the unclean antics of monkeys at the zoo".

Watching Dominic Hill's vivacious revival of this rarity at the Orange Tree, you are tempted to think of A Wife Without a Smile as the Dead Funny of its day. Like Terry Johnson's recent hit, Pinero's play looks at the link between humour and maturity and homes in on a dicey marriage where the wife is out on a lonely limb because she fails to share her husband's schoolboy idea of what is comic. A spouse would need a supreme sense of humour just to restrain herself from killing him.

Played by David Tinson as a tubby, guffawing refugee from Jerome K Jerome, Rippingill can't see that there are more intimate ways of putting a smile on a wife's face than by infantile japes, silly toys from Hamleys and elephantine jocosities. So, he gets what he deserves when, in a plot twist that anticipates a celebrated JB Priestley comedy, the marriage is discovered to be legally invalid and, far from lapsing into anguish, Sarah Tansey's sensuous wife reacts by demonstrating hitherto hidden prowess on the smile front. Soon, she is causing that doll to bob up and down, and from side to side too, with a young artist friend (Nick Fletcher).

Humour as an amused sense of proportion rather than as a chronic dependence on rib-tickling or facetiousness is an asset no one in the play possesses. Hill's cast vividly brings out the comedy of humourlessness. There's Richard Heffer's Pullinger, a wing-collared know-all who translates everything into the narrowest business terms ("To think that such people walk, talk, and eat the firm's biscuits," he idiotically declares of the erring Mrs Rippingill), and there is the pompous and opportunistic Webbmarsh (Paul Kemp) who nurses ambitions to rehabilitate the drama of the day and to "hurl raw bleeding chunks of humanity" onto the stage in plays that are "all beginning and middle and no end". Farcically frustrating his every attempt to man-handle its material into the shape of an Ibsenite social tragedy, A Wife Without a Smile forms Webbmarsh's pretensions.

It is, in fact, a deeply cynical play. You aren't even allowed to admire or warm to the wife who, when confronted with a rival for Seymour's hand in the shape of Tricia Kelly's drolly eager Mrs Lovette, tosses aside all thoughts of love and impecunious Bohemianisms for coldly calculated financial self-interest.

Given the play's sourness of outlook, Hill's production is determinedly upbeat. But in spiritedly wiping the dust off this interesting curiosity, it manages to plant a thoughtful smile on the faces of the audience.

Until 10 Oct (0181 940 3633)