THEATRE / Sex and sensibility: The Artifice - Orange Tree, Richmond

FOR ITS exuberant revival of her last play, The Artifice, the Orange Tree Theatre is publicising Susannah Centlivre (1667/77-1723) as 'the most successful female playwright before Agatha Christie]'. This is a bit like plugging Sappho as 'Greek womanhood's biggest art export before Maria Callas and Nana Mouskouri': the competition for these accolades is not exactly intense. To say that most of her plays 'outstripped Wycherley and Congreve in popularity' is no necessary recommendation either, when you consider that Shakespeare was once poorer box-office than Beaumont and Fletcher.

So it is good to report that, in Sam Walter's likeable production, The Artifice comes across as a sparky and spirited comedy, its tone worldly but unsoured, such as you might expect from the pen of a woman who managed to attend lectures at Cambridge disguised as a boy, became a prolific dramatist and had plays censured for indecent language, banned for being too Whiggish or (in the case of attacks on Catholics, Tories, and electioneering corruption) suppressed as politically dangerous.

Also reviled at the time, The Artifice is a tangle of intrigues which point the moral that impudence tends to pay off in a money-obsessed world where 'he is only honest, who is not discovered'. For example, realising that it is her obsessively jealous husband who has just entered her darkened chamber and not her lover, whom she was clearly expecting from her vocal response, Caroline Gruber's distraught sexpot Mrs Watchit pretends to be talking in her sleep, her ambiguous ravings a running commentary on a virtuous dream of beating off the advances of a randy chiropodist. She's a Roman Catholic, and it is typical of the skewed moral priorities on view here that the husband (played by David Timson as a Bunterish, tweedy coronary candidate) allows her regular access to a 'confessor' and undergoes paroxysms of sexual suspicion as a result, rather than suffer the worst pangs of paying the financial forfeit for denying her her 'ghostly aids'.

Plots involving discarded Dutch mistresses adroitly putting the 'low' in Low Countries, fathers sickly bestowing daughters on fortunes rather than on decent men etc. etc. are played out on a snakes and ladders board, the serpents sporting human heads. Paper doors for bumptious cads to burst through heroically and a slightly dotty period / modern dress mix are among the production features that give the old comic formulae an added friskiness.

It is the silliest parts that appealed most. A particular delight are the scenes involving Auriol Smith's affected, vain Widow Heedless, who is beset by bumpkin servants who cannot get the hang of calling her madam (however many times she gestures with her fan) and who will insist on bringing her shoes in on a plate.

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