The Relapse

Oliver Soden 5 February 2010

The Howard Theatre – Tuesday 2nd-Sat 6th February


John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse is a canny choice for the opening of Downing’s new designer theatre. Alex Lass’s production is vibrant and confident and admirably assured considering the scale with which he’s dealing. Yet it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously and I’d hazard this is something from which the play might benefit.

Lass turns the evening into a romp but this, to my mind, is to miss the sharper nub of Vanbrugh’s satire: opportunism and materialism are the order of the day in a sparkling but never wholly pleasant drama. Written in scathing response to a popular Moral play, it leaves us with the hollow line ‘Constancy’s an empty sound’ – a message that gets a little lost both in delivery and interpretation.

‘I want to see myself all round’ purrs Lord Foppington into his mirror – but we’re only ever allowed one perspective.

Clearly there is comedy and it is provided in abundance. Yet the sub-plots rise up from their allotted places and take over where perhaps they’re not entirely welcome. Lord Foppington is an excuse for a lot of fun and Andrew Brock certainly has it (although his accent wavers unconvincingly). However there is an indulgent and overdone approach to a whole parade of unfunny and unnecessarily twisted gargoyles: the ever-loud Will Seaward as the Nurse and ever-manic James Swanton as Coupler are particularly guilty here.

The acting seems to divide into two camps which scrape against one another rather jarringly: those who take it seriously and those who don’t. Of the latter, we must thank Sophie Rixon as the betrayed Amanda and Edwin Ashcroft as Fashion who yank the play back to where it belongs. Ashcroft is particularly excellent: dour and dry, he is both vocally incisive and astonishingly in command of some difficult text. Of the rest, Jemima Middleton is a lovely Hoyden and Kate Mason a nicely flirtatious Berinthia. Josh Walker and Phil Howe (as Amanda’s relapsing husband and lecherous admirer respectively) seem less assured.

Despite a bizarrely anachronistic and dully superfluous set, Lass takes evident and contagious delight in using the new auditorium. Live music elongate scene changes unnecessarily and scene-setting signs soon become tiresome but the costumes, wigs, and make-up are nothing short of sumptuous: a truly refreshing treat. And it’s not to say that immense pleasure isn’t to be had of this rarely-dull performance. At three and a half hours it satisfies a usually late-show-restricted craving for longer plays and it’s pulled off with aplomb. There’s just a danger that, if it goes any more over-the-top, it will be impossible to see Vanbrugh’s surprisingly dark fabric for the frills.

Oliver Soden