Not think about the various layers of meaning of a play, or decode directorial decisions or wonder about fancy staging. Just laugh. Simple pleasures are, very occasionally, where it’s at for me.
The Beaux’ Stratagem (I love that punctuation, is that weird?) by George Farquhar is a great play to see if you just want to sit in a comfy National Theatre chair and laugh like a hyena, which frankly is something that everyone should want to do.
A restoration comedy staged in proper sumptuous period dress, the plot is relatively simple at first glance: two gentlemen - Archer and Aimwell, the titular Beaux - retreat to the country to carry out their Stratagem to marry money, having lost all of theirs in London, only to end up falling for the rich women they are looking to defraud. Throw in a dodgy innkeeper, a rogue highwayman, a priest, a French soldier and sundry other waifs and strays and the action starts to get a bit more complicated.
The comedy brings in its laughs in a variety of different ways: arch observations, silly wordplay (extending even to the character names - Archer and Aimwell the beaux on the hunt, Mr and Mrs Sullen the unhappily married couple etc), ridiculous situations and straight up slapstick. There is unquestionably a lot going on but it all gels together seamlessly and, more importantly, it’s all very, very funny. Joyously funny. Gloriously funny. (Yes, I liked it.)
Geoffrey Streetfeild is comedic gold as Archer, the more worldly and cynical of the beaux. In a razor sharp sprint of a performance he is never short of hilarious, especially when being coerced into situations that involve lengthy, energetic song and dance numbers. Streetfeild is great at both incidentally (and one day I’ll get the trifle song he sings out of my head, hopefully). The energy in his performance is phenomenal - not only does he have the bulk of the musical stuff, he also has the most lines and does the most running around - and he’s just magnetic to watch.
The rest of the cast are also excellent. Though arguably given less to work with, Samuel Barnett is great as Aimwell, the younger, soppier beaux, especially when given some physical stuff to do (his comedy sword fighting is top notch). Susannah Fielding is a fantastic foil for Archer as Mrs Sullen, witty and scheming but also the moral heart of the play. In smaller, but scene stealing parts Jamie Beamish, Pearce Quigley and Timothy Watson are glorious as a French priest with a suspiciously Irish accent, an exceptionally deadpan servant and a love lorn French count respectively. It’s a strong team.
Staged with a degree of ingenuity that sees one house set playing both a country pub and a country house through clever, rapid fire set dressing, the play is directed by Simon Godwin of Man and Superman fame. Although very different in style and tone - there were, regrettably I think, no big song and dance numbers in Man and Superman for a start - The Beaux’ Stratagem is another example of Godwin’s talent and deftness as a director of comedy. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors. (I'm sure that means a lot to him.)
As I've mentioned music several times in the last few hundred words, it would be wrong not to give a hat tip to the excellent band that The Beaux’ Stratagem has assembled. Sometimes on stage, sometimes off the band is a character in its own right - especially when accompanying Archer’s reluctant singing. And the period costumes are just gorgeous too, both in their rainbow colour palette and beautiful detailing.
I loved this play and this production a lot and you should go and see it if you like, y’know, things that are funny. Just beware the painfully catchy trifle song.
The Beaux’ Stratagem plays in the Olivier Theatre at the NT until 20th September.