We’re only half way through 2015 and already it’s been a phenomenal year for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS), who delivered gem after jewel with their Directors’ Cuts season at Brewery Theatre. Earlier this year, Jenny Stephens directed the powerful The Heresy of Love with BOVTS and she’s back in the same theatre with another late 17th Century play, the difference being that Love for Love was actually written all those centuries ago.
William Congreve’s Restoration Comedy must be a challenge for any actor and this is surely one of the reasons his lesser known play has been chosen; it gives the young cast an opportunity to learn a lengthy script (3 hours!) and to perfect exaggerated mannerisms, for starters.
Having seen Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s thrilling School for Scandal a few months back, I was already a convert to the genre. That performance left me wanting more excellence from the era and BOVTS easily rise to the challenge.
Love for Love is a comedy of manners: a story of sexual desire, deceit and the importance of reputation. The ever-so-dandy Valentine is in love with the considered Angelica and his extravagant yet fruitless pursuit of her has left him at the mercy of his debtors. His father, Sir Sampson Legend can fix that and convinces Valentine to sell his inheritance for the benefit of his sea-faring brother, Ben. Sir Sampson wishes Ben to marry Mr Foresight’s daughter, pure country girl Miss Prue, but Mrs Foresight’s scheming sister, Mrs Frail, dreams of her own marriage to the soon-to-be very wealthy Ben and so contrives to derail the liaison by pairing up Miss Prue with ‘vain fop’ Tattle. Tattle wants pretty much anyone he can get, including Angelica. Miss Prue falls in love with Tattle. Sir Sampson does his best to woo Angelica. But who does Angelica want? And, look out, because two of the characters are about to marry completely the wrong person, caught in a web of trickery that leads to mistaken identity.
This all sounds a little like the opening credits of Soap, doesn’t it? Confused? Fear not! The cast guide us beautifully through the true-to-the-letter original script, helped along by Lizzy Leech’s Georgian set, which is perfectly suited to this grand old theatre, while Elina Pieridou’s period costumes are almost a show stealer.
As with all BOVTS productions, this is very much a team effort and it remains obvious that this bunch understand each other well, coming together like a well-oiled performance machine, gliding through their performances, picking up each others’ cues.
It struck me that a great deal of British TV and film comedy we’ve seen over the years descends from the Restoration Period – the intelligence and wit of Blackadder, the campery of Charles Hawtrey, the insanity of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, even the genius of Milligan. Particularly funny are the scenes in which Timothy Innes feigns madness as Valentine, cue lots of horse back riding and gobbledegook.
The women are vicious as hell: Amy Barnes is deliciously nasty in her role of Mrs Foresight and Rosie Nicholls’ coquettishly vile Mrs Frail has you wanting to slap her. As in School for Scandal, most of the characters are back-stabbingly appalling and you’d never want to be friends with any of them, though you might be wise to share a pot of tea with the Caribbean bearded Nurse – yes, a fine bit of humorous drag by Ryan McKen there. Nurse and sharp-as-anything servant Jeremy (Michael Harkin) aside, these people are well bred and, as Sam Woolf’s excellently portrayed bed-hopping, biggest-cad-of-the-lot Tattle says to his conquest, Miss Prue, “All well-bred persons lie … Your words must contradict your thoughts, but your actions may contradict your words.” How very 21st Century!
And, once again, isn’t it telling that a play written over 300 years ago is so poignant today? (Political) deceit and our everyday obsession with how we’re perceived by others certainly isn’t going away in a hurry.
Love for Love is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 27th June