THEATRE / Off West End: Hatched, matched, dispatched: School for Wives; The Good Natur'd Man; Punchbag

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The Independent Culture
With marital breakdown ever on the increase, it's perhaps no coincidence that three London theatres opened comedies about emotional security this week. Though from different centuries, all three explore sexual politics and the hazardous business of relationships.

In Moliere's School for Wives, (Almeida) the middle-aged Arnolphe is so crippled by his fear of betrayal that he cannot countenance marriage without building in a control factor over his future wife. He selects a suitably innocent ward and has her closeted away at the age of four in the hope that she will never develop independence of thought. We meet them as Agnes has just emerged into adulthood, and Arnolphe is gloating about tying the knot. Needless to say, nature proves stronger than nurture and, despite Arnolphe's efforts, Agnes falls head over heels with the first handsome swain she claps eyes on.

Like all good comedies, School for Wives may appear ludicrous but is based on real - and continuing - fears. Most of us appreciate the fear that commitment may open the way to being hurt and look for assurance that our trust will never be betrayed. Jonathan Kent's superb production never loses sight of this dark side of the play - though it's also gloriously funny.

Its comical strength is thanks partly to Richard Wilbur's enjoyably inventive translation and partly to Ian McDiarmid's chameleon performance as Arnolphe. Now desperate, now ludicrous, now smarmy, McDiarmid constantly slithers from your grasp - while Emma Fielding, as Agnes, has a tranquillity and loveliness that make his increasing desperation almost tragic.

Far from trying to control his future bride, the hero of Goldsmith's The Good Natur'd Man (Orange Tree) is so self-effacing he won't even tell the poor girl his feelings. Yet in a sense, his problem is the same as Arnolphe's - his absurd behaviour stems from his desperate need for love and security.

The play's plot is fuelled by all the classic elements - intrigue, rivalry, disguise - adeptly juggled in Anthony Cornish's pleasing production. Its interest, however, resides in the idea of a hero who is kind to a fault. The indiscriminately trusting Mr Honeywood (Michael Higgs) narrowly misses losing his only real friend (Claire Rushbrook), because he is too busy pleasing everybody else. He has to learn real trust.

By the late 20th century trust is out of the window and the barricades are up. Robert Llewellyn's Punchbag (Hampstead) is set in a self-defence class, where women learn to overpower Peter, a heavily padded male who represents potential attackers. The characters can look after themselves physically, but this proves no defence against emotions.

In Glen Walford's high-energy production, Llewellyn's witty script is delivered by a fit cast, who hurl one another around the set with impressive ability. It's a young, upbeat, enjoyable show - yet some of its snappy one-liners reflecting the sorry state of communication between the sexes, could speak for all three plays: 'It's a bit like Christmas Day in the trenches,' one pupil says to Peter, when they share a brief bout of human contact between punches.

'School for Wives' (359 4404); 'The Good Natur'd Man' (081-940 3633); 'Punchbag' (722 9301)

(Photograph omitted)

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