Peter Ormerod reviews The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
On paper, she’s really not very likeable. It’s a good job then that the vain, pompous, shallow, emotionally detached character of Mrs Rich is brought to such glorious life in Jo Davies’s production of Mary Pix’s play. Every second our titular quasi-heroine is on stage, the action sparks and fizzes delightfully.
And here we have a conundrum, because things are distinctly and almost invariably less good when she’s not around. For tranches of the first half, it’s hard to shake the sense that there is an ecstatically riotous show desperate to break out, but hidebound by uneven pacing and some oddly inhibited performances. It seems to come together fully only in the second half; but when it does, it’s a triumph, and well worth the wait.
Written in 1700 and originally called The Beau Defeated, the play focuses on the widow of the title and her determination to become a ‘woman of quality’, chiefly through marrying the right man. She and her associates then woo and are wooed by suitors of varying suitability. It’s proudly anti-sentimental, even anti-romantic - some lines are so acidic they burn the air - yet exudes a mischievous charm.
Sophie Stanton’s Mrs Rich is an irresistible force of nature. For all her affectations - her fondness for unnecessary French is endearingly awkward - she has us all on her side from the outset, displaying just enough vulnerability to bring warmth to her cynicism. It’s a full-blooded, full-bodied, lusty, life-giving performance, and very funny with it. Her semi-spoken singing style works a treat too in the ever-witty songs.
Elsewhere, Daisy Badger is doe-eyed charm itself as the somewhat hapless Lady Landsworth, while Laura Elsworth’s Betty and Sadie Shimmin’s Mrs Fidget lend a no-nonsense sharpness.
It is a pity that none of the men comes close in terms of performance; they seem oddly uncommitted, and this at times fetters the production. The two dogs are terrific, though, with a winning insouciance.
Perhaps the show’s mood is best encapsulated by its quartet of saxophones, which, together with a harpsichord, dominates matters musically and begins the evening playing works Mozart and Bach wrote for string ensembles. They give a sense of straining to cut loose, before finally doing so in thrilling fashion. So stick with it. Few RSC productions can have ended with so vibrant a spectacle - or so wicked a wink.
* The show runs until June 14. Visit rsc.org.uk to book.