Theatre: Resounding romp with a dash of reality

London Cuckolds Lyttleton at the National, London
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In the interval, I remarked to another critic that this show had succeeded in bringing out the silly schoolboy in me, a creature admittedly never far below the surface. She joked that it was beginning to bring out the severe schoolma'am in her. I suggested that we meet up for a spanking session afterwards. Yes, indeed, the "ooh-er-missus, get-your-titters- out" tone of Terry Johnson's production is catching. So is the evident delight his crack cast take in administering a great booster jab of comic verve and vigour into Edward Ravenscroft's Ray Cooney-esque late Restoration farce.

You could, I suppose, make a case that, in this period of English drama, there are plays that have better claims to be rescued from obscurity by the National Theatre than Ravenscroft's commercial crowd-pleaser. And it's not as though it's a great rediscovery, like, say, Max Stafford-Clark's recent reclaiming of The Wife's Excuse at the RSC. London Cuckolds has had the dust knocked off it before by Stuart Burge and John Byrne. The political correctness brigade might also object that its portrayal of middle-class womenhood - randy as hell for adultery, and beating their husbands hollow at their own game - pays the female sex a pretty back- handed complement.

Johnson's staging of his own lightly adapted version disarms opposition, though. Played with bags of pace and some delectably timed pauses, amidst the kind of scenery that has "SCENERY" written all over it, it's a high energy theatrical meta-romp that colludes with the audience in guying farce convention, and then modulates near the end - under Simon Corder's beautiful mellowing light - into something more soberly resigned and reflective.

The casting is spot-on. Swanning around with the unhurried self-amused superiority and hour-glass statuesqueness of a brunette Mae West, Caroline Quentin is adorable as Arabella, a wife with extra-curricular appetites and attitude who can say "NO" in 20 toyingly different tones so it means a resounding yes. Ben Miles turns in a magnificently skilful and winning performance as Ned Ramble, the sexier of a pair of gallants who, chronically accident-prone in his frantic, ingenious plots to bed the female population, is repeatedly foiled at the critical moment. Faced with a fetching, unsophisticated newlywed from the country who has been left by her paranoid husband in the chastity belt of a complete suit of armour, Miles has to become a flustered human tin-opener - though, true to form, he's eventually cheated of the can's contents.

The naivete of this country creature hilariously threatens to blow the gaffe on the whole game of female subterfuge. Unable to stand the incipient shame, her husband hits her and the mood suddenly darkens. As we see how dependent these men are on a public front of wifely virtue, and how dependent the wives are on their husbands' finances, a rueful realism casts a sunset glow over the proceedings which end in a bittersweet "catch song" performed by the entire company. Before that, it's a hoot: prepare to get those titters out.

Box office: 0171-452 3000

Paul Taylor

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