Egad: I adored this show from the very beginning. Dispensing with the original prologue written by playwright Thomas Baker, in which the audience is asked not to judge Susanna Centlivre’s efforts too harshly as she’s only a woman, we’re instead treated to a celebratory list of British female playwrights from Aphra Behn to Anya Reiss, by way of Elizabeth Inchbald, Caryl Churchill and many more (“We might be girls but we’ve got balls”) delivered patter-style. Having presented a triumphant production of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem in the same space last year, Jessica Swale’s gorgeous production of one of Centlivre’s greatest hits The Busy Body (unseen for over 150 years) confirms her unparalleled gift for eighteenth-century comedy with another show that is as ingeniously staged as it is blissfully funny.
Second only to her predecessor Mrs Behn in reputation, Centlivre probably began her theatrical career as a travelling player; she may have disguised herself as a man in order to attend lectures at Cambridge, was an active Whig supporter and wrote most of her 19 plays in the years leading up to the dissolution of the Stuart dynasty (an awkward era to define – post-Restoration but pre-Georgian).
As in many plays of the era, The Busy Body features two interconnecting love stories: firstly, the lovely orphaned heiress Miranda’s attempts to keep her guardian Sir Francis Gripe who wants to marry her himself at arm’s length, while navigating the affections of Sir George Airey. Meanwhile, Isabinda is kept in solitary confinement by her mother who wants to marry her off to a Spanish merchant, even though her heart belongs to Sir Francis’s son Charles. The well meaning Marplot (the eponymous busy-body) attempts to sort out this tangled web, inadvertently causing even more farcical goings-on.
The adorable cast’s light touch and the good-humoured audience participation allows the audience to quickly feel involved with the contrived plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the romance inspires a marriage proposal or two over the run. As Charles, Michael Lindall looks like a Georgette Heyer hero with his chiselled features and aristocratic bearing. Well aware of his way with the ladies but devoted to Isabinda, he cuts quite a dash and provides an irresistible Spanish turn. The belles are equally charming; Ella Smith makes a fluttering, girlish Isabinda and Alexandra Guelff’s shrewd Miranda looks every inch a fairytale princess destined to live happily ever after with her adoring George (played with self-deprecating charm by Matthew Spencer). The older generation are well represented by Gay Soper as the splendidly monikered she-dragon Lady Jealous Traffic, who hates all men except Spaniards, and Gus White as the deluded Sir Francis, driven by money and lust. As Marplot, Cerith Flinn perfectly embodies this accident-prone buffoon. Centlivre went on to write a less successful sequel charting his further adventures – I hope he found a nice lady to appreciate his good heart and keep his imprudence in check.
The production’s trump card is the marvellous use of music (composed by Harriet Oughton with naughty lyrics by Swale) that recreates 18th century glee songs with a post-modern wink. The underscoring in Isabinda and Charles’ scenes is almost like a silent film (violin strains that become increasingly frantic as her mother approaches) and the ensemble of actor-musician minstrels (all of whom are individually characterised) pop up like voices in Marplot’s head.
Intelligently designed by Simon Kenny and lavishly costumed by David Shields, this is a rare treat that epitomises the way in which intelligence is as integral to comedy as it is to more serious work. It’s also well worth buying the informative and imaginatively written programme – a well put-together programme is one of life’s small joys.
The Busy Body plays at Southwark Playhouse until 6 October 2012. For more information and tickets, please visit the website. Photography by Robert Workman