Theatre: On the Fringe

The Country Wife Bridewell Theatre n The Deceived Riverside Studios

PRESENT MOMENT'S production of The Country Wife is so fetchingly arrayed that it leaves you open-mouthed. The designer, Caroline Bird James, and the director Joss Bennathan, have transformed Wycherley's rollicking Restoration comedy into an irony-laden fashion parade, bisecting the Bridewell's acting-area with a narrow catwalk. Heralded by a thudding sound-track, the intriguers strut up and down in customised period attire and lavish headpieces, but this concept makes for far more than just a clothes show.

The most obvious effect is to make the play's knaves, dupes and cuckolds instant laughing-stocks. The lipsticked fops have the air of pedicured poodles. The women, wanton or not, come gift-wrapped in paper ribbons and bust-accentuating bodices. Horner, the lascivious dandy whose feigned emasculation provides the play's chief comic device, has Gothlike black tresses and model-gaunt heroin-chic. As far as the jealously guarded country bumpkin, Marjory Pinchwife (an overly shouty Victoria Pembroke) is concerned, these people know where to shop.

The catwalk gives the actors the appropriate poise and swagger with which to deliver Wycherley's stream of crafted aphorisms, innuendoes and insults. It also stalls any temptation to ham. Looking round him with an insolent, malevolent stare, Martin Parr's superb Horner communicates a wild boredom. His attitude seems strikingly modern, however outmoded the strict codes of honourable conduct upon which his scheming feeds. The design becomes a succinct expression of a vain and vulnerable society, whose members each imagine that they have the upper hand. It's painfully recognisable.

The Modenese society on display in The Deceived - a new, wonderfully lewd translation by Christopher Cairns of Gli Ingannati, a comedy written anonymously in 1532 - is also familiar. This bizarre love triangle, in which a woman disguised as a man acts as messenger between a lady smitten with her and a nobleman she adores, was to provide Shakespeare with inspiration for Twelfth Night.

But the plots tangle like overcooked spaghetti and the mistaken identities are insanely far-fetched - a father crucially fails to recognise his son, for example, even though the son is readily mistaken for his cross-dressing daughter. Kenneth Rea elicits buoyant performances - particularly Victoria Newlyn's gender-bending Lelia. They make it more than simply a fascinating exercise for scholars, but it's no surprise that the designers (who hail from the same place as Bird James - Wimbledon School of Art) seem to have been at a loss. The garish, Eldorado-fake village exteriors could have been better, but there can be no pulling the wool over the audience's eyes: the original left a lot to be desired.

Dominic Cavendish

`The Country Wife', Bridewell, London EC4 (0171-936 3456) to 6 Feb; `The Deceived', Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-237 1111) to 7 Feb

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