Does new National Theatre boss Rufus Norris have some dirt on Patrick Marber? Or did the comedian-turned-writer have a bit of a wtf-am-I-doing-with-my-life moment after his tweaks to the ‘50 Shades of Grey’ film script were rejected and decide to go on a rebound fling with his old love theatre?
Either way, you wait nearly a decade for one new Marber play, and then three turn up in one year, all at the NT, all within a few months of each other. Prior to June’s ‘The Red Lion’ and July’s ‘Three Days in the Country’, ‘The Beaux’ Stratagem’ is in fact a late Restoration comedy, written by colourful Irishman George Farquhar. But for the deliciously modern comic sensibility of Simon Godwin’s production, Marber’s co-credit as dramaturg is telling. The evening comes drenched in exuberant irony, ranging from knowing script tweaks to deliciously silly song sequences and a climactic fight scene that heavily references Benny Hill.
Let’s not get too distracted by one man, because in most respects this enjoyably giddy night belongs to its women. ‘The Beaux’ Stratagem’ follows a couple of caddish young men – Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfield) – who’ve fled London after blowing their fortunes and have now arrived in Lichfield in an effort to bag some wealthy heiresses. While Aimwell soon enough falls for a goody two-shoes heiress, Archer has much more the interesting time, meeting his match in two entirely unsuitable women: Amy Morgan’s hilariously no-bullshit Midlander Cherry, the daughter of his landlord; and in the night’s standout turn, Susannah Fielding – an actor who grows in stature with each new role – as saucy, self-aware Mrs Sullen, who provides the moral core of the evening with her twinkly-eyed musings on the cruelty of marriage.
In essence, though, it’s a big, daft romp that comes to its head in a heroically contrived collision between dandies, ladies, a group of local bandits and a couple of errant Frenchmen, all zooming about Lizzie Clachan’s multi-level set like gleeful toddlers. Godwin and Marber’s interventions don’t succeed in trimming all the sentimental Restoration flab out of the second half, but there’s so much to commend in this fizzy evening that you can easily afford it a few indulgences.