theatre : Love for Love, Hampstead

REVIEWS Paul Taylor on a stylistically challenged revival of Congreve
With VE and VJ Day safely commemorated, Journeyman Productions now draw our attention to another of this year's anniversaries. It is 300 years, they remind us, since the premiere of Congreve's comedy Love for Love, which opened Lincoln's Inn Theatre in 1695. Director Jon Harris marks the occasion with a production that just about makes up in humour and spirit what it clearly lacks in budget and finesse.

Fielding a number of fine performances, this revival manages to survive the unevenness of the casting, its bleak, poverty-stricken demeanour, and the fact that the New End Theatre, with its steep single-rake and its small black box of a stage, puts audience and play in an awkward social relationship. As stagings of Restoration comedy at the Orange Tree and the Swan have shown, this style of drama can benefit (by having the human reality behind its artifice heightened) from the intimacy afforded by in-the-round and thrust stages.

But at the New End, physical proximity doesn't bring any corresponding sense of conspiratorial closeness. The scaling of the performances thus becomes a problem and one that is compounded here since the production makes a heavy interpretative point of journeying from one stylistic extreme to the other. It begins at a screamingly high pitch, with mounds of maquillage and elaborate wigs, and with egregious campery from Joss Brook's Scandal and Robert Goodale's Tattle. By the end, their public disguises gradually peeled away, the cast have reverted to sober black (not a wig or a beauty spot in sight), even if the evening closes as it opens with freeze-frames of exaggerated social attitudinising.

The right level is, however, found by some of the actors. Tracy Ann Oberman gives a particularly well-judged performance, radiating amused and resourceful intelligence as Angelica, the young heiress who puts her debt-ridden suitor, Valentine, on a long probation until he can prove he's not just after her fortune. Playing this dashing ex-wastrel, Neil Roberts rightly lets you see the unsympathetic side of him at the start, not softening, for example, his peevish irritation when a nurse turns up at his door with one of his bastards. But then the stunt of feigning madness in order to avoid signing over his property and his conceited father's unedifying behaviour seem to bring out a deeper person in this Valentine who, by the end, looks not unworthy of Angelica.

The cast don't always seem to be acting in the same production, but there are some extremely enjoyable characterisations, particularly that of Jean- Benoit Blanc as Valentine's blunt sailor brother, a nautical image-addict whose idea of a chat-up line is "You're a tight vessel and well rigged, an you were as well mann'd". Arriving in Act 3, he comes as a tonic after all the mincing landlubbers.

Booking: 0171-794 0022

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