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The Double Dealer (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Double Dealer – ★★
By William Congreve
society/company: Orange Tree Theatre
performance date: 11 Dec 2018
venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Photo: Robert Day


Having sat through 135 minutes of The Double Dealer I now understand why it wasn’t a hit when it premiered in 1693 and has never been popular since. It’s the sort of piece which might, just might, fly with very imaginative reworking. And everyone involved with this production has clearly worked long and hard but, I regret to say, with only limited success.

Like all Restoration Comedies it’s a complicated, convoluted plot which involves an awful lot of lusting after the “wrong” people. It takes until the interval to work out who everybody is, despite director Selina Cadell’s ingenious attempt to get round this by making characters appear when they’re mentioned at the beginning by way of visual introduction. And it helps not at all that fine actor Zoe Waites is doubling two characters: one a clean young woman in love and the other a cross, sexually predatory older woman. Waites uses two voices and manners but they are insufficiently distinctive to allay confusion and her costume changes (some very quick) are far too subtle.

The very best thing in this rather show is Jenny Rainsford as Lady Pliant a character who tries (and fails) to disguise neediness as assertiveness. Rainsford captures the unsubtle randiness perfectly and hilariously with neatly nuanced Meg Ryan moments. Moreover she has a wonderful way of glancing round at the audience (in the round and very close in the intimacy of The Orange Tree) to make them complicit. It’s a bravura performance.

Also strong are Paul Reid as the simpering, daft Lord Froth and Edward MacLiam as the outwardly warm, dastardly, duplicitous Maskwell – all bows, sweet talk and revelatory soliloquy.

I like the use of Purcell’s original score although it’s a pity more isn’t made of the live viol which accompanied the play’s single song. It was tucked away on the gallery and invisible to most of the audience.

Also commendable is the staging which makes interesting use of the Orange Tree’s spiral staircase and the space behind the audience in the gallery. The costumes (Rosaling Ebbutt) are attractive too: lots of brocade, velvet, flat fronts, lacing along with long coats for men and shoes with ribbon bows. And when Dharmesh Patel strips to a pair of modern bright yellow underpants it really is very funny.

Some good points then but none of it prevented this wordy piece from seeming awfully long and even more inconsequential than plays of this period usually are. The witty new prologue written by Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson and delivered by three women actors makes fun of the play’s nonsensical nature but doesn’t actually mean that it’s then acceptable to wallow in the triviality of it all.

And on press night there seemed to be a major text problem. There were an inordinate number of stumblings and repetitions which suggested that the cast weren’t, for what ever reason, quite able to support each other as they normally would. It culminated in MacLiam drying spectacularly, calling for a line, being greeted by silence and having to run off stage to get his line. Something was definitely not right.

Photo: Robert Day

 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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