The Double Dealer (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

The Double Dealer (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, until January 26th 2019)

Restoration comedies have very much been in vogue this year, with productions at the Donmar, Stratford upon Avon, Chichester and Southwark Playhouse among others. But the scintillating new version of Congreve’s The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, must be the first to boast pure socks appeal.

Director Selina Cadell, who is well-versed in this theatrical style and who can thus be trusted with it, shakes the dust off the feet of this 17th Century work stylishly replacing overstated wigs, foppery and powdered faces with a contemporary chic take on the costumes, blending late 1600s with le dernier mode – even down to yellow boxers. And the character-driven coloured socks for each of the gents is a simple but effective neat touch.

While this production (set here in Orange Tree House, Richmond, in 1694) makes no deliberate attempt to remove it from its time it still has a wonderful feel of being fashionably up to date. We are presented with a witty new prologue (by Cadell and Eliza Thompson) which sets the tone perfectly for this archetypal battle of the sexes with all its plotting and vanity.  Save for the occasional item of furniture and minimal props the in the round stage is bare, allowing us to focus far more on the spoken word and action.

All the traditional Restoration figures are present from the cuckolded husbands to the cheeky coxcombs and passionate, disappointed and determined women. Cadell’s skill – and indeed that of the incisive performances from all of the ingenious cast – is in helping us to understand the motivations of all the richly-drawn characters in this mannered, though convoluted, comedy without losing the joy of the language and the pure silliness of the action. Even for those wearied by the flood of Restoration revivals this year this is a confection to be savoured.

Edward MacLiam as the scheming and selfish Maskwell – the double dealer of the title – is the puppeteer pulling all the strings. At times his villainous plotting is as dark as Iago’s taunting of Othello, yet MacLiam finds plenty of humour in the role, constantly nodding and winking at an audience who are audaciously roped into his schemes.

Throughout the play there is much interaction between the performers and the audience, so prepare to be grabbed, flirted with and rested upon as much as you would expect with any seasonal panto. This is surely how Restoration was originally played, with the audience drawn into the drama, the scheming and the philandering every bity as much as the characters; if the plays were trying to hold up mirrors to the consciousness of the age then the audience must expect to be reflected in what is happening on stage.

Zoe Waites plays a blinder of a double role – the manipulative and promiscuous Lady Touchwood and the innocent Cynthia, the subject of her scheming, while Simon Chandler is suitably bewildered as poor Plyant, from whom his wife deceitfully withholds her favours.

Jenny Rainsford brings an impish glee to the coquettish Lady Plyant, “centring everything in her own circle,” falling for the advances of any man, yet breathlessly returning any attention a hundredfold. One fast-paced seduction scene causes most of the audience to break into a sweat.

Jonathan Coy lends gravitas to an often indignant Lord Touchwood, Lloyd Everitt plays the betrayed Mellefont heroically and believably and Dharmesh Patel is a solid Careless, growing in confidence as the plots develop.

The play doesn’t let us see nearly enough of Lord and Lady Froth, but Paul Reid and Hannah Stokely are perfectly paired as the superficial couple, while Jonathan Broadbent is as glittery as his hosiery as the wantwit Brisk.

This production of one of Congreve’s earliest works, which has often been dismissed and neglected, re-establishes it as a Restoration drama well worth revisiting and adds to the Orange Tree’s reputation of rediscovering classics in an exciting way.

David Guest 

Image: Robert Day

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub