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The Country Wife

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

I am not sure whether William Wycherley laid the groundwork for comedy characters in years to come, or whether Jonathan Kent's revival of classic Restoration comedy The Country Wife is flavoured by some of television's most memorable, but the stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket was reminiscent of many a sitcom at yesterday's press night, writes Matthew Amer.

Wycherley's gloriously lewd tale follows Horner, a man with a plan to wheedle his way into the beds of as many women as possible without being suspected. He simply spreads the rumour that he is impotent and watches as the gullible men of the town bring their wives and sisters directly to him to keep them occupied; after all, there is no way he can cuckold them, is there?

The loveable scallywag is played by Toby Stephens – introduced to the audience in his birthday suit, preceded by the fanfare of a mooing cow – with more than a hint of Blackadder favourite Lord Flashheart; a bold, fast-talking, swaggering braggart, loved for his audaciousness. He really is as slimy as Piers Morgan covered in pond weed, but you can't help but love his deliberately adulterous ways.

The Country Wife of the title is the new spouse of David Haig's Pinchwife, a man who knows the way of townsmen only too well and will not let his new wife fall into their salacious trap. Instead he keeps her under lock and key and disciplines the over-excitable, childish Yorkshire lass (think Bubble from Ab Fab) as a pet. Haig delivers a manic, jealous, panicked, grumpy performance as Pinchwife, reminiscent of his role in the Elton/Atkinson comedy The Thin Blue Line.

The Theatre Royal Haymarket's inaugural season's Artistic Director Jonathan Kent has assembled a remarkably strong ensemble cast, which stays together following this production to perform Edward Bond's The Sea. Jo Stone-Fewings camps it up as blundering dolt Sparkish, John Hopkins delivers a more subtle comedy performance, lending Harcourt a touch more realism than many of the characters, while Patricia Hodge, Liz Crowther and Lucy Tregear shed their prim and proper façades to become lustful wenches in Horner's presence.

Designer Paul Brown has created a fabulously lurid 'anytime' in which the sexual shenanigans play out, full of bustiers, long swishing coats and colours so bright they should really be viewed through protective sunglasses. It helps to check reality in at the cloakroom to enjoy this fantastically over the top sexual misadventure. em>MA

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