THEATRE Love in a Wood New End, Hampstead

Paul Taylor uncovers the contemporary echoes in a comic tale of outdoor sex
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The Independent Culture
If a modern dramatist were to write a play called Hampstead Heath, you could be fairly confident that its theme would not be the innocent delights of rambling in the fresh air. The same goes for Restoration works with "St James's Park" in their titles. As is demonstrated by London Classic Theatre Company's intelligent revival of Wycherley's Love in a Wood, or, St James's Park, this resort was a nocturnal cruising area for both sexes. The panelled walls of Michael Cabot's production are thrown open for the erotic games of blind man's bluff - or "midnight coursing" - in the disconcertingly frank al fresco episodes that are a highlight of this brutally unsentimental comedy about sexual intrigue and appetite.

"Your reputation!" declares Anna Kirke's nicely pinched and venal matchmaker to the lecherous skinflint, Alderman Gripe (Jeff Bellamy). "Indeed, your worship, 'tis well known there are grave men as your worship, men in office too, that adjourn their cares and businesses to come and unbend themselves at night here, with a little vizard-mask." Where earlier dramatists would have made a distinction of tone between the high and low plots, Wycherley pushes all his personnel into the democratising darkness of the park.

Cabot ably manoeuvres a cast of 15 around a complicated plot of mistakings, multiple eavesdroppings, mistrust and mercenary entrapment. Amanda Osborne is very funny as Lady Flippant, the fortune-hunting widow who rails against marriage but hangs around the park at night in the hope of being chased. A contemporary audience has no trouble responding to her, or to the pharisaical Alderman, who is too mean even to pay the market rate for illicit sex before he is caught in flagrante. Modern parallels are drolly insinuated by pop songs and, less subtly, the bawd's cans of lager and Flippant's copy of Hello! magazine.

The difficulties begin with the characters we are meant to take more seriously. Valentine (Alexander Giles) is so insufferably mistrustful of his beloved Christina that he does not deserve her forgiveness at the end. And given that the smoothie rake, Ranger (Chris Gilling), had been about to rape his mistress, mistaking her for another woman, it is uncomfortable that he is the mouthpiece of the play's final encomium on marriage. It would be idle to claim that this, Wycherley's earliest play, is on the same level of achievement as The Country Wife. But Cabot's revival, the first London staging for more than 300 years, proves that its best bits still possess vigorous life.

To 8 Sept. Booking: 0171-794 0022

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