William Congrave’s Restoration comedy The Way of the World is vibrantly brought to life in a fun and frolicsome production by Lyndsey Turner for the Sheffield Crucible. Everything about this 312-year-old play feels fresh and new, from the moment the audience walk into the auditorium and find themselves in an empty film studio. The space is soon buzzing, as the entire ensemble participates in the energetic and tightly choreographed recording of a pop art music video, starring Ben Lloyd-Hughes as a bleary-eyed lothario.
As filming wraps, the play begins. This is a world of stilettos, ruffs, nodding neon Churchill dogs and stripy onesies. It is also a world in a state a flux, ever changing and unstable. Anything goes, but if it does, there is a high price to pay. Higher than the hairstyles, the high heels and Mirabell’s opinion of himself.
In his professional stage debut, Lloyd-Hughes brings logic to the convoluted back-story of his attempts to woo the elusive Millamant, guiding the audience through the twists and turns of plot with flair. Despised by Millamant’s aunt Lady Wishfort, he has been forbidden from pursuing the woman he loves. Determined to outwit Lady Wishfort, Mirabell has invented an uncle, Sir Rowland, who will romance Lady Wishfort with the understanding that their marriage would disinherit his “nephew” Mirabell. As for Mirabell, he plots to expose the whole affair after their marriage when fear of public disgrace will force Lady Wishfort to grant him Millamant’s hand in return for his silence.
Add to this the machinations of Mirabell’s jealous ex-lover Marmont and the unhappy marriage of convenience between his friend Fainall and other ex-lover (Lady Wishfort’s daughter, who is somewhat subversively only ever known as “Mrs Fainall”) and the audience could easily be scratching their head. The storytelling is clear, however, the ensemble utilising the circular space well to bring physical texture and depth to all the exposition that is needed to keep the audience up to date with events. Congrave’s comedy of manners is brought wonderfully to life by Samuel Barnett as the hilariously camp and foppish snob Whitwould. The stand-out performance of the night, he keeps the audience in stitches with a mere raised eyebrow.
Leo Bill pitches all the obsessive, distasteful and unhinged shades of Fainall perfectly, while Daisy Lewis makes for a deliciously schematic man-hating Marmont, though her frenetic performance may be slightly too mannered for some. Richard Goulding’s Sir Wilful is the stuff of complete stereotype as a baffled and tally-hoing English country gentleman, but is all the funnier because of it. Capturing a delicate balance of naivety and world-weariness is the hugely likeable Lucy Briggs-Owen as a woman trapped between an unbearable marriage to Fainall and her unbearable Lady Wishfort. As that melodramatic lady herself, Deborah Findlay steals the show. Suffice to say her performance includes a rendition of ‘Edge of Glory’, a balloon drop and a seduction scene as intentionally cringeworthy as uproarious.
Turner’s decision to set the play in a New Romantics London of the 1980s is inspired. The preoccupations of the time – fashion, music, gossip, high society, debauchery – all echo the sensibilities and swagger of the play’s eighteenth century context. Naomi Wilkinson’s larger-than-life set perfectly captures Congrave’s multitude of settings, the stage transformed completely between acts. Various colour palates of neon orange, green and purple work attractively to define the Crucible’s white stage and the production is full of impressive touches: at the close of the first half, a huge scrim suddenly and strikingly reveals a Last Supper-esque frieze of Lady Wishfort’s debauched soiree. At the end of the first act alone we are treated to a musical mash up at the hands of Joel Gillman’s sullen Petulant; eighteenth century classical composition meeting grimy disco beats.
Wilkinson’s design elaborately incorporates even more modern touches. As Millamant, Sinead Matthews could easily be mistaken for Lady Gaga, even without the stuffed dog’s head sewn into the taffeta of one outfit. Matthews embraces the resemblance, giving Millamant an entertainingly kooky quirkiness. Millamant is rather hard to like with her vanity and self-centred arrogance, yet Matthews manages to capture a certain charm and ironic wit that softens her. If it is difficult to really believe the match between her and Mirabell it is surely the script’s materialistic overtones that complicate any genuine romance.
Cheeky and irreverent, this is the stuff of pure entertainment. Yet it packs a punch, too, with its views on the sexes, money and appearances, the production shrewdly fusing Congrave’s social commentary with a contemporary modern aesthetic. A production as clever, witty and immediate as its script, and I’d go and see DJ Petulant any night of the week.
The Way of the World plays at Sheffield Crucible until 25th February. For more information or to book tickets, visit Sheffield Theatres’ website here.