Theatre / Three Hours After Marriage RSC, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
As you enter Stratford's Swan Theatre, you may feel you've blundered into some kinky outpost of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The stage is piled high with cabinets of curiosities (prehistoric skeletons; human hands hatching from eggs etc) and the cranky decor is a collector's item in that it is entirely composed of collector's items, such as the table with elephant trunk legs and the stove in the shape of a smoke-belching dragon.

Three Hours After Marriage is itself a dusty curiosity: an 18th-century satire on false tastes in learning, bogus science and bad writing, penned by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot. This triumvirate were members of the Scriblerus Club, whose aim of ridiculing these excesses was perhaps best realised in Pope's Dunciad, an epic mock-glorification of dullness replete, in the 1728 edition, with footnotes of demented pedantry.

A curiosity, then, but watching Richard Cottrell's revival of this play - in which an elderly physician and collector of curiosities (Clive Francis) adds to his museum a scheming, libidinous young wife (Jane Gurnett) and, three hours after marriage, finds himself cuckolded, widowed and a father - are you convinced that the piece is a truly collectable item?

The RSC doesn't make this an easy question to answer. The Swan has a policy of exhuming rarities but does not in its programmes always tell you to what extent they have been adapted. I suspect that here, for example, they have interpolated the speech at the end where the wife defends her trickery on the protofeminist grounds that, if you don't allow women to work for their livelihoods, they are forced to live on their wits. I suspect even more that the doctor, cradling his child, would not give vent to the sentiment that a child is a "person" too. No one is saying that plays should be treated as sacrosanct: it would just be nice to be informed about which bits have been altered and why.

Cottrell's production gives this Augustine work a vaguely 19th-century setting. There is, for instance, a barmy Wagnerian intensity to Alison Fiske's splendidly funny Phoebe Clinket, the obsessive unproduced playwright whose tragedy about the Flood marks her out as the Ernie Wise of her day. In the first half, the proceedings take a fair while to achieve lift-off, but spiral away into a blissful romp in the second. There's a delicious scene, for example, in which two men competing for the favours of the wife turn up at Dr Fossil's house disguised as curiosities: a crocodile and an Egyptian mummy.

No joke to be trapped inside these lumbering outfits while the doctor and his weirdo colleagues argue about your authenticity and threaten to test it by cutting you open. When the knife comes out, the folded hands of Richard McCabe's mummy shift, sharpish, from breast to genitals. In the subsequent melee, he glides about the stage like some bizarre out- of-control electric floor-polisher, so tiny and geisha-like are the steps the mummy's swaddling allows him to take. There are certain bits, such as this, which you would like to see again and again. Most of it, though, you wouldn't want to watch twice.

In repertoire at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 295 623) to Oct

PAUL TAYLOR

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