Though not much read these days, Fanny Burney's once popular novels (Evelina, Cecilia etc) are still remembered, even if only as a footnote to the works of Jane Austen which they influenced. Burney the playwright, though, is an unknown quantity, and would have been so to her contemporaries too.
Apart from the blank-verse tragedy Edwy Elgiva, whose first night in 1795 swerved into farce through the actors' faulty memories, none of her eight plays made it on to the stage. Or at least this was the case until last September, when Show of Strength mounted the first production of her Regency comedy, A Busy Day in a pub theatre in Bristol. Having garnered some rapturous reviews and an LWT Plays on Stage award, Alan Coveney's sparky show has now transferred to the King's Head.
Newly returned to England from the East Indies, where the death of her adoptive father has left her with a fortune of pounds 80,000, the heroine Eliza (the excellent Wendy Hewitt) is steered straight into a series of decidedly sticky social situations. These enable Burney to explore the clash of manners and of values between Eliza's extravagantly vulgar nouveau riche family and the aristocratic relations of Cleveland (Richard Stemp), the young man to whom she became engaged while abroad.
Adding to this awkwardness is the confusion produced by a plot which echoes that of Vanbrugh's The Relapse: ignorant of the betrothal, Cleveland's wastrel younger brother, Frank, also woos Eliza, in the unsentimental hope that the marriage will settle all his debts. It's one of the sharper ironies of the play that Frank, all mugging mock-innocence in Ian Kelly's very funny performance, should think that his brother's stricken amusement has been caused by horror at the idea of a sibling marrying beneath him. In fact, it's his own inhibitions about declaring Eliza his fiancee that are causing Cleveland's discomfiture.
The fact that the heroine has spent time abroad allows Burney to put English class conflicts in a broader perspective. Admiring her Indian muslin gown, Eliza's gloriously jumped-up sister (Maggie O'Brien) professes airy surprise that it's provenance was Calcutta: 'Can they make things there? I thought they would all be savages.'
She's a girl who mistakes moronic conspicuous consumption for refinement ('I hope I needn't always be taking care of things now,' she snaps when her mother tells her not to let her train trail in the dirt), so it's just as well she feels she has someone to look down on, when the term 'savages' is applied by the nobs to her and her parents.
Shrewd and at times astringent, the play is fundamentally good-hearted and even-handed, poking fun on an equal opportunities basis. The outrageous snobberies of Lady Wilhelmina (Helen Weir) and Miss Percival, the voracious rival for Cleveland's hand whose displays of fluttering pretend-indifference are amusingly caught by Juliette Grassby, are skewered every bit as determinedly as the inanities of the nouveaux. But though it's alive to the social difficulties faced by such men as Eliza's genial, down-to-earth father (Geoffrey Collins), whose wealth has left him feeling out of place everywhere, the play does not find upward mobility inherently absurd. Indeed, it ends with a great paean (somewhat spoofily intoned here) to the metropolis and to the middle-class enterprise, where, at the time Burney was writing, England's huge future strength lay.
'A Busy Day' runs to 30 July at the King's Head, London N1. Booking: 071-226 1916
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