The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, which was originally called The Beau Defeated, is a neglected play by a neglected playwright named Mary Pix. I liked it well enough and had a lovely evening of entertainment, but I found it to be a somewhat justly neglected masterpiece by this author. It has been given such an excellent, witty and energetic production with such a very high level of performances from everyone involved that it comes across as far more exciting a rediscovery than I think the text quite warrants; but director Jo Davies and designer Colin Richmond are behind an evening that is thoroughly delightful from start to finish.
The play is being touted as a Restoration Comedy in the tradition of Aphra Behn but actually, it is a piece from the very late 17th or early 18th century, and thus it is very much a product of the period of William and Mary and almost into the reign of Queen Anne; and therefore it is nothing like as licentious, rude, cleverly biting or sharp as the comedies of the period of Charles II. It is by comparison quite soft and cosy and very much uses the tropes of the recent past in ways that are comforting and predictable. Yes, there is irony and social satire, and the stuff about bankers in London and social climbing is easily understood as relevant to our own day; but it is more like a romantic Noel Coward drawing room comedy than it is like the plays of Farquahar, Etherege or Wycherley, say. A less prurient taste was at work on the English stage by the time Mary Pix went to work and, as in France during the 1790s, a kind of sentimentality began to creep in too. This play is less like the work of Beaumarchais in The Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro and more like his play La Mère Coupable. It is, compared to Restoration Comedy, moderate and derivative. It is cleverly enough spun, however.
That said, this is a truly brilliant production that plays with the text and the mood astutely, is very faithful to the tradition of the Restoration play and adds to the text cleverly integrated songs by Grant Olding that give the show a kind of cabaret/musical comedy aspect that works well. It is a real treat.
In the main and somewhat amplified part of Mrs Rich, Sophie Stanton is simply outstanding. She put me in mind of Beryl Reid or Dora Bryan at their best and had a charm that had us rooting for her even at her most preposterously social climbing and gullible. As Mrs Clerimont Jessica Turner balanced this Mrs Rich beautifully as the sane, genuinely aristocrat that Mrs Rich aspire to be and did not at all understand. Jessica Turner had a poise and attractiveness that was very appealing and was also nicely partnered by Michael Simkins as a sober, trustworthy Mr Rich who was a voice of reason. They were both voices of sanity in a crazy and affected world. I was also very taken with Tam Williams as the fake Sir John Roverhead. He minced and pranced and somehow also conveyed how fake he really was (a servant in disguise, it turned out). Now I would also love to see him given the chance to play a role like Millimant in The Way of the World. He obviously understands the style and has the wit and body language for this kind of play. Indeed, there is no one in this cast that I would not wish to see again and to praise from Solomon Israel’s Younger Clerimont to Daisy Badger as Mrs Landworth to Laura Elsworthy as Betty and Will Brown as Jack. This is ensemble work of a high level. The whole production is dazzlingly good and entertaining. It has an energy and a clarity that are exemplary.
The play is evocative of its period both in the design by Colin Richmond and the intelligence of director Jo Davies. It is a cheerful, charming and highly entertaining show.