Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: The School for Wives

The School for Wives - The New Theatre
The School for Wives - The New Theatre

Sexist, narcissist, misogynist, elitist and a first-class dope.

Ah yes, the well-spoken yet badly-assembled Arnolphe is a man like…no, wait. History is littered with dudes such as Arnolphe - a rich and pompous landowner that has somehow convinced himself he alone has the power to control what women want. This is the 17th century and the poor fool has decided that the only way to take a wife is to train her from birth, or thereabouts.

See, a middle-aged Arnolphe has thought everything through. His mate Chrysalde can hardly believe his ears upon hearing that Arnolphe 'discovered' a girl called Agnes when she was just a child, putting her up in one of his country houses and paying a hapless pair of 'pretend' village idiots (Oronte and Georgette) to look after her and to shield her from the outside world.


When Agnes is of age, Arnolphe will then marry his pretty ward and Agnes will know no better than to serve and treasure her 'loving' husband from whom she will never stray. Because, you know, ignorance is bliss (for Arnolphe).

The problem is, when Agnes (a perfect Grace Fitzgerald) turns 18, she catches sight of a handsome local, Horace, and whaddaya know? The kids fall in love. Arnolphe (whom Agnes knows only as 'Monsieur de la Souche') is flabbergasted. Horace is actually mates with Arnolphe, but he has heard wicked things about this Souche character… can we tell where this is going?

First off, Moliere's The School For Wives (originally staged in 1662) is a preposterous piece of work - that much is obvious. In twisting and turning the French playwright's seminal comedy to create a 'new version' of a play that most of us had already forgotten, director Peter Reid has not only added to its ridiculousness, but indeed, embraced it with both arms.

Here, Simon Toal (Arnolphe) isn't just an actor playing a part. He is, instead, an ACTHOR PLAYING A PA-ARTH! And we adore him for it. There are a few bumps in the road (the clunky exposition and the silly physical comedy). Toal stops short at twirling his refined whiskers, but my goodness, he and his co-stars (particularly Conor Donelan and Deborah Wiseman) have a whale of a time sinking their teeth into Moliere's absurd set-up.

If this were a drama, we'd sharpen our knives. But it's not. Instead, The School For Wives is a zippy, cohesive and frequently hilarious adult pantomime that, despite a wobbly opening, eventually finds a comical groove that fits. It's a tad bawdy and a, um, touch old-fashioned, but at least it has the decency to poke fun at its bizarre premise.

Ends August 15

Rating ***


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