theatre The Way of the World, Lyttelton Theatre Phyllida Lloyd has put her cast in mini-dresses and green shirts. Paul Taylor applauds the actors who refuse to be fashion victims

In The Way of the World, all the ladies are styled "Mrs", regardless of marital status, but Phyllida Lloyd's updated revival in the Lyttelton is, well, more of a miss than a hit - or a Ms. Perhaps because the director has just had a big success here with Orton, who was influenced by the play, Congreve's complicated comedy of intrigue over inheritance, contracts and female freedom has been deposited in a high fashion no-man's-land, a Sixties retro-chic world where skimpy mini-dresses are sported with full farthingales, black stockings and cruel heels and where it's considered legal for men to wear lime-green shirts. Typically, instead of in St James's Park, the first scene of Act 2 now takes place at a "Rosamond Pond Retrospective" where the various scheming couples have to stop and pretend to look at Ms Pond's abstract daubs whenever one of her understandably scarce fans pauses in that part of the gallery for a gawp.

The broad temporal relocation does not seem to me to run directly counter to the meaning of the play as it did in Lloyd's recent dystopian Threepenny Opera, where the replacement of petit bourgeois snobbery and violence by Crimewatch 2000 in-yer-face yobbery and violence destroyed Brecht's point that the values of criminals are interchangeable with those of the middle classes. Here, the updating simply fails to justify itself by throwing a new light on the sexual politics of the piece, while Lloyd's efforts to clarify and whip up interest in the narrative element (showing us various offstage marriages and arrests to joky-urgent incidental music) are almost touching, given the stubborn way Congreve's plot continues to make three- dimensional chess seem like a game of snap.

The cast is a decidedly mixed blessing. Mirabell is supposed to have reformed after an intriguing rakish past, but Roger Allam plays him as though he'd just emerged from a stint as a more than usually stodgy and sententious vicar. Millamant's prevarication over committing herself, conveyed with a delightfully self-parodic capriciousness in Fiona Shaw's performance, becomes all too understandable. In the famous scene where they make their detailed marriage contract, the two of them seem to be in separate plays. Shaw's intensity as she shudders at the thought of children or "dwindles" to the ground as a neat pile of mockingly prostrate obedience at Allam's feet seems to push the piece, at moments, beyond comedy into almost proto-Ibsenite territory. It's about time she gave us Beatrice.

Excellent in a less controversial manner are Sian Thomas's splendid Marwood, a stylishly villainous bird of prey and Geraldine McEwan's sublimely funny Lady Wishfort. Decked out in a puffball riot-of-roses minidress, this scrawny, superannuated crone is given to hilarious little girlish gambols across the stage and tossings of the head. The joke is that she seems to be quite taken in by this show of bemused innocence herself. There's no mistaking the raddled horniness, though, when, as she reassures Sir Rowland that there is not the "least scruple of carnality" in her designs, her normal egad-style bray swoops down to a throbbingly concupiscent contralto. Watching her practise alluring ways of rising in confusion from a couch, you realise just how gracefully Nancy Reagan and Barbara Cartland have consented to grow old. Wishfort here winds up a tipsy wreck, left out among the binbags: where McEwan should end up is on the short list for an award.

National Theatre, London, SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252

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