Review: The Provoked Wife at The Swan in Stratford

Richard Lutz takes a pew for a 300 year-old sex comedy that’s still alive and kicking.

  Alexandra Gilbreath and Rufus Hound. Photo: Pete Le May.

 With names such as Lady Brute, Lovewell, Heartfree, Colonel Bully, Lord Rake and Lady Fancifull leaping off the stage in Stratford, you kind of get the idea as you prepare yourself for this RSC production in The Swan.

It’s a sex farce but one with a punch. John Vanbrugh – yes, he who designed Blenheim Palace – also wrote successful blockbusters a century after Shakespeare. And this was one of the sharpest.

The plot can be outlined on the head of a quill. Lady Brute wants a break from her boorish husband. She fancies Constant, played by comedian Rufus Hound (see above). Her gamine niece fancies the austere Heartfree who, despite himself, is falling in love and lust. Lady Bountifull is convinced the world revolves around her already-spinning head. Everyone else fancies a drink and a romp.

And so this 1697 farce rolls itself out.There is witty banter, neat plot twists and, underlying it, a biting comment on class, sexual politics and the comedy and drama of manners. And it is timely. It was written during the reign of Queen Anne. who’s suddenly in the public mind after the film The Favourite. 

But hold on to your hats: It’s a long play (three hours and a bit) and there are longeurs that could have been chopped. The costumes, though, are eye popping and, crucially, the cast play their Restoration hearts out.

Caroline Quentin (above) turns out a five star over the top performance as the delusional Lady Bountifull. Alexandra Gilbreath is the witty wife provoked who wants a bit on the side, comedian Rufus Hound is playful and nuanced in his outrageous blond  wig as her suitor and there’s even a  mini role for Les Dennis as a bluff old sot

It’s a winning production. But a long one. But classy.

On until 7th September. Tickets: