This is theatrical grand larceny
TIM WALKER gives The Way of the World at the Donmar Theatre, London, four stars
The Way of the World
Donmar Theatre, London, May 26
* * * * (Four stars)
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William Congreve's The Way of the World is one of those big, sprawling and very, very long Restoration comedies that most theatre directors – and theatre-goers – feel that they have to put themselves through at some point or other.
Attempts have been made to serve it up in new ways – one thinks of Lyndsey Turner's trendy, modern dress version at the Sheffield Crucible five years ago – but, to be honest, it's hard not to go to see it with a sense of virtuousness, rather than enthusiasm.
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James Macdonald goes back-to-basics with his revival at the Donmar – and it is, startlingly, an uproarious, bawdy delight. He recognises that this theatre's stage is confined for a play of such epic proportions, and, accordingly, places the emphasis on his ensemble.
They more than deliver, and, what is most exciting, a star is born from one of their number. By tradition, the plum role is Lady Wishfort, a vain, silly, rich lady of a certain age who must decide if a dashing young blade is suitable for her niece.
Haydn Gwynne gives it a lot of welly and delivers some great lines with relish, but it's the young Fisayo Akinade as Witwoud – a socal gadfly who forms part of a comedy double act with Simon Manyonda's assured Petulant – who, in an act of theatrical grand larceny, steals the show.
Think of Nickolas Grace playing Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited – only on speed – and you get the idea. It's best not to dwell too much on the all-but-unfathomable story – seditious stuff in the 18th century, as it dared to take a cynical, jaundiced look at the institution of marriage – but simply enjoy the parade of theatrical grotesques that passes through it.
The generously proportioned Christian Patterson invests Sir Wilfull Witwoud, an embarrassing family relative up from the sticks, with more than a hint of Humpty Dumpty, and Geoffrey Steatfeild and Tom Mison shine as calculating young bucks.
The women, negotiating the stage in enormous period dresses like great galleons under full sail, make a magnificent sight, but Justine Mitchell – fresh from her success in David Eldridge's Beginning – can make reasonable claim to being their flagship in the role of Millamant.
Maybe it all occasionally overspills into pantomime, but if you are into period plays with actors with beauty spots, elaborate wigs and fluttering fans delivering tried-and-tested truisms with gusto, then this is most definitely for you. It's snobby and politically incorrect, but this time around all can be forgiven because it is also very, very funny.
Sadly, it is one of the last plays that we will see at the Donmar under the leadership of Josie Rourke as its artistic director and Kate Pakenham as executive producer. They are clearly determined to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper.