This review was first written for The Public Reviews
Following Deborah McAndrew’s contemporary play The Grand Gesture, which has just finished its run at the Tobacco Factory, the other Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate show in town is William Congreve’s restoration comedy Love for Love – and at first glance it couldn’t be more different.
This is a fiendishly complicated comedy of manners, where the protagonists seem not to fall in love so much as lust after the fortunes of the marriageable. One exception to this rule is Valentine, who has sunk into debt through his wooing of Angelica, even though she has never offered him any real encouragement. Driven to desperate measures, Valentine agrees to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother Benjamin, in return for an immediate bailout from his father Sir Sampson. This makes Benjamin an eminently eligible bachelor and although, after returning from three years at sea, it has been arranged for him to marry Miss Prue, there are other schemes afoot. Mrs Frail, a single woman about town, hatches a plan with her sister Mrs Foresight to marry Benjamin and capture his fortune for herself.
If the plot becomes ever more labyrinthine and difficult to follow in detail, this is made up for by the atmospheric candlelit setting – which evokes thoughts of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse or the recent RSC productions of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – and delicately coloured period costumes, not to mention the fine array of acting talent, musicianship, choreography and movement on display.
At first, despite the beautifully executed formal bows, fan language and character-driven scene changes, the sheer amount of exposition in the play is over-long and difficult to disguise. But, once various scenarios have been set up, the performance is enlivened by nicely timed comic pratfalls, song and dance. Of particular note is the rousingly nautical tableau of Benjamin’s sailor song at the end of Act III.
After the interval the pace really picks up; witty asides to the audience and physical comedy abound, with Valentine throwing himself into a pretence of madness in a final desperate attempt to win Angelica’s affections and nullify the punitive deal he’s made with his father. Timothy Innes as Valentine carries this off with bravura but Pippa Moss as the spirited Angelica is more than a match for him. Karl Wilson as Sir Sampson is to be commended for portraying a character so much older than himself with convincing weight, while Ryan McKen puts in a hilarious turn as the tall, bearded nurse in a dress. But there isn’t a weak link in this ensemble – after spending so much time together learning their craft, this talented company works as an intuitively attuned and coherent whole.
It may not quite have the incisive sparkle of more familiar restoration plays such as Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, but the obsessively status-driven and gossip-fuelled world of Love For Love still resonates with a 21st Century audience; reminding us – as in The Grand Gesture – that at its essence human nature changes very little, but there’s always room for love if we make it.
Reviewed on Tuesday 16th June 2015 | Photo: Graham Burke