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A CurtainUp London Review
The Relapse or Virtue in Danger
by Lizzie Loveridge
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In Cibber's play, a woman, in the disguise of a courtesan, seduces her own unfaithful husband and causes him to repent. Both plays were written in response to the new puritanical atmosphere prevailing in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Catholic King James II was deposed and replaced by the protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary.
The larger monuments to the multi-talented Sir John Vanbrugh are not his plays or his spying expeditions but Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, the buildings he designed as an architect. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sir Peter Hall Company production of Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife at the Young Vic a few years back and was ready for more of the same.
The Relapse has two plots, the first concerns Loveless (James Purefoy), a reformed libertine who has been living in the country with his wife Amanda (Imogen Stubbs). When the couple return to London, Loveless, true to the title, relapses and pursues his wife's friend, a beautiful and buxom widow, Berinthia (Claire Price). Worthy (Adrian Lukis), a former lover of Berinthia, tries to seduce Loveless' wife, Amanda, by telling Amanda of her husband's infidelity. Worthy fails and Amanda proves herself a loyal wife to an undeserving husband. The second plot has more comedy as it concerns the marital exploits of the newly ennobled Lord Foppington (Alex Jennings) a Beau of the first rank but rather dim and very vain. The former Sir Novelty Fashion has purchased his peerage and is now looking for an heiress to make his wife. His younger brother, Tom Fashion needs an heiress' money, impersonates his own brother and marries in secret by deception, Hoyden, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy's daughter (Maxine Peake). When Lord Foppington arrives to woo his bride, he is accused of being an imposter and treated very badly by the country bumpkin, Sir Tunbelly's (Brian Blessed) army of roughs until he is identified by a neighbour. The sub plot almost becomes the more important part of The Relapse, and is certainly the more entertaining.
Lavish this production is indeed, with a cast of twenty six. The sets and costumes are superb. The play opens, the outgoing director, Trevor Nunn, choosing an echo to The Phantom of the Opera with rising chandeliers rather than a falling one. The circular staged Olivier is starting to look too large for anything except big musicals but here the designer, Sue Blane has cleverly reproduced a theatre of the 1700s with boxes for the lords and ladies of fashion and with a proscenium arch. The set changes are prettily painted backdrops with lots of trompe d'oeil which would have been appropriate to the period. The fashionistas sport high periwigs adorned with bows and flowers and long coats with low pockets, red high heels and stockings which wrinkle before the days of nylon and lycra, and that is just the men. Sir Tunbelly's castle is wheeled on and fireworks explode, there are sword fights to rival Errol Flyn's films ""Egad!"". When Lord Foppington enters in his white wedding suit he rivals Elton John's Mozart outfit. Before the wedding is a masque danced and sung by creatures in gold as Hymen and Cupid which seems authentic to the eighteenth century. The final elegant dance becomes a stomping celebration but with a bittersweet epilogue on Foppington's fate.
Alex Jennings is highly camp and side splittingly funny as Lord ""Stab me vitals!"" Foppington but Vanbrugh's play lacks lustre when Jennings is not on stage. Raymond Coulthard's Tom Fashion, dulls beside his elder brother until his exhilarating sword fight shows him leaping on, over and above the furniture. Of the women, Claire Price's vivacious, wide eyed coquette Berinthia flirts to distraction but Imogen Stubb's role is too dull for her acting talent. James Purefoy's Loveless seems less than Charming but Adrian Lukis is a smooth seducer who deserved to be more successful! I liked Edward Petherbridge's wily lawyer who takes his rewards by kissing young Favour fully on the mouth.
Although the whole at three and a half hours makes you feel that you have been to a banquet where you have eaten too much, I did find some of what Vanbrugh has to say about men and women, fidelity and marriage surprisingly relevant after a period of 300 years. An example is Berinthia's speech to Amanda about male -female attraction, and here I paraphrase: "You remember when we were girls and there were dolls that we longed for, that we had to have, that we talked about and dreamt of, and when we got them, we played with them and we pulled off their clothes and cast them away, so it is with us."