‘The Gentleman’s Stratagem’ (The Vault: 18 – 23 March ’14)

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“Rebecca Smith, as Lady Henrietta, establishes herself across the emotional range of the script. When she’s happy, she’s happy. When she’s angry, Lord help you.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

The traffic was bad coming in from Livingstone and the Current Mrs. Dan was feeling rushed. “I’m glad we’re seeing this tonight and not the other stuff you’ve seen this week,” she confided. We’re on the same page. Last November she’d been left unaccustomedly speechless by Charlotte Productions’ Goblin’s Story – the best thing I’ve seen since the Fringe.

For Gentleman’s Stratagem director Laura Witz took the same straightforwardly tangential approach to under-read literature of yesteryear. Her script is a remodeling of Maria Theresa Kemble’s Smiles and Tears, or The Widow’s Stratagem. Witz started by knocking through the script’s internal walls, reducing the original locations to a single, open plan scene set in the reception room and garden of a smart house in Richmond Upon Thames.

Lord Earnest Gerald, together with his friend Mr. Belmore, is attending a masque ball. Lord Earnest’s aunt, Mrs Stanly, wants him wed to the frightfully ambitious Lady Delaval, but Earnest has eyes only for Miss O’Donolan. Mr. Belmore is embroiled in litigation, his affairs are in a precarious state. Will the gents be able to find resolutions to their affairs among the studied graces of the smart set at play?

Witz is no embalmer. With the assured hand of the truly reverential, she surgically removed Kemble’s “sentimental narrative.” This would not have gone down well with the original audiences (a bolshy lot at the best of times), but for a 21st century audience the fashion for high melodrama is as remote as powdered wigs and smallpox.

Witz delivers a bright and breezy script, full of life, wit and sparkle. No one, but no one, does timing like Witz. The play runs not a moment too long or too short – its elegant proportions are genuine Georgian.

“They should have gone more Cruel Intentions and not tried to do it in costume.” I suggest afterwards.

“Rubbish!” The Current Mrs Dan was having none of it. “I loved the costumes. It was so P&P.”

I’m not sure what postage and packaging have to do with it, but on reflection the Austen-era costume was great fun and made the clothes swap at the centre of the plot properly entertaining.

The set, however, felt cluttered. The cane screen which severed the stage created too much dead space. Neither did it effectively delineate inside from outside, garden from ballroom, as was perhaps the intention.

Upstage right there’s a door from a mid-century suburban semi, with the handle on upside down. Why? There’s nothing similar on the opposite side also used for comings and goings. Overhead paper lanterns, set amid floating fabrics, flicker distractingly. The Vault might do chinoiserie – provided it’s of the Maoist, brutalist kind.

The start of the show was partially drowned out by an unsuitable cacophony. There was also a heater on full blast, until it was poked at with a stick. The music too eventually settled down to something more reflective and sedate.

George Selwyn Sharpe, who played Lord Earnest, must be one of those method actors. Other than deciding that his character had been traumatised by tales of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, I can’t think why he’d be sporting 5 o’clock shadow to a high class ball. He’s got strong stage presence, a confident mastery of his lines and a playful approach to their delivery, but Sweeney was a Victorian invention, so maybe Earnest can have a shave after all.

Michael Heard-Snow and Nuri Syed Corser are the yin and yang of footmen. Heard-Snow is poised, deferential, dry as Gin Lane. Syed Corser, by contrast, is a labradoodle in a tailcoat who ought to look to Catherine Livesey and Francesca Street for tips on the art of being supernumerary without being superfluous.

Rebecca Smith, as Lady Henrietta, establishes herself across the emotional range of the script. When she’s happy, she’s happy. When she’s angry, Lord help you. Her performance is the most in keeping with the direction of the script – primary colours not shades of grey.

The kindling romance between Florence Bedell-Brill as Lady Henrietta and Bryon Jaffe as Mr. Belmore was sophisticatedly adolescent, Wildian almost. Jaffe is moving up the batting order, mastering some bolder strokes than when I saw him in The Birds.

Saskia Ashdown as the villainous Lady Delaval struggles to find her inner bitch. Ashdown is young and pretty. She doesn’t quite inhabit the ageing, cloying, clawing Delaval. Similarly, Shannon Rollins as Mrs Stanly is not quite the dreadnaught doyenne. I can’t help but blame the cane screen – it has a such muting effect, not least because it so physically imposes on the limited space available.

I’d spent the day starting to reorder World FringeReview, the online hub for performers and reviews at Fringe festivals from Adelaide to Edinburgh. I made sure to keep up the many pictures of the late, hugely lamented Adrian Bunting – he who developed Kemble’s Riot into such a hit with audiences.

Bunting was fascinated by Maria Theresa Kemble and her family. I hope he’d have liked what Witz has done with one of her scripts, especially how she inverted the characters’ genders. Reverential yes, but where there might be disagreements of taste Witz remained respectful, while being right to make the changes she did.

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 20 March)

Visit The Gentleman’s Stratagem‘s homepage here.