The vast auditorium of the Olivier theatre isn't always the best place to stage comedy; it relentlessly exposes actors who can't adjust to its demands, and it makes exceptional demands of directors and designers as well.
This production by Simon Godwin of George Farquhar's 1707 comedy isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but it has some rich and rewarding performances, and it takes seriously the play's treatment of the issues of marriage, divorce and women's rights.
As the ill-treated wife Mrs Sullen, Susannah Fielding is outstanding, and the director's decision to focus maximum attention on her plight pays big dividends. Anyone who saw Fielding playing Portia as a manicured Las Vegas blonde bombshell in Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice won't be surprised to learn that she turns Mrs Sullen into something special. She manages to balance her desire to escape the pain of being married to a drunk for something better with the knowledge that 18th century marriage sets women up as automatic victims. She is well matched by Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer, who also combines a world-weary cynicism with a streak of soft-hearted romanticism. When Mrs Sullen's brother arrives at the end of the play to persuade her husband to free her from her loveless marriage, the audience ends up hoping that against all the odds she will find happiness with Archer.
Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, Archer's partner in a plan to snare a wealthy bride and split the proceeds, as a haughty young man from the Bullingdon club. As the object of his attentions, the wealthy heiress Dorinda, Pippa Bennett-Warner seems less confident in extracting the comedy from her ingenue role, and doesn't quite match the others for audibility.
Godwin, possibly stealing an idea from Josie Rourke's glorious production of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar, punctuates the play with frequent songs. These are quite funny but again the size of the stage makes it impossible to generate the kind of pathos and emotional punch that is possible in a smaller theatre.
Designer Lizzie Clachan has produced a towering three-storey set with lots of staircases, which doubles neatly as the local tavern and the house where Dorinda and Mrs Sullen live. But the upper levels aren't strictly necessary, as this isn't the kind of comedy which depends on doors opening and shutting. So I wonder if a simpler set on one level might have been a better choice.
This is a play that I have never seen before, so I can't compare this version to the work of other directors; I admire the way Godwin has avoided the easy option of piling on lots of sight gags and extraneous business; this is a comedy which has a serious feminist core, and Susannah Fielding's performance finds the way to it.