WHAT a tangled web lovers of all ages weave in William Congreve’s witty restoration comedy, The Way of the World, which has just opened in rep at the Chichester Festival Theatre.
The shenanigans of the fops and powdered gentry of Georgian society are breathlessly presented by plotters of both sexes bent on finding love and the inevitable purse that goes with it.
Two men-about-town – the fashionable and unfaithful Fainall – and the likeable Mirabell – meet in a trendy chocolate house to work out a game plan to enable the latter to win the woman of his dreams without her being deprived of her fortune.
The first act can leave you reeling as you try to unravel the story, which initially seems unduly complex, and it helps to have a handle on the social graces of the eighteenth century.
It isn’t until the arrival of the grande dame, Penelope Keith, as Mirabell’s prospective mother-in-law, Lady Wishfort, that the dialogue begins to sparkle with humour.
Keith has lost none of her bite, honed from years in television comedies such as The Good Life and To The Manor Born. In this sophisticated comedy she softens her barbs with a youthful playfulness. She appears to be having as good a time on stage as the audience are enjoying her performance.
There are some tremendous characters in the production. Witwoud and Petulant (Giles Taylor and Christopher Logan) serve no real purpose other than to lighten the intrigue as the periwigged and fragrant followers of Millamont – the feisty and unconventional beau of Mirabell.
They appear as pantomime dames with their affected mannerisms, Logan in particular milking every gesture and line for laughs.
Later in this sumptuous costume drama the coarse, and increasingly in-his-cups Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Jeremy Swift) steals every scene as the drink takes hold. He’s mooted as a love rival to Mirabell but, like so many of the story’s characters, is only there as a comic foil .
The glorious costumes and the dazzling burnished set, that’s lit by a dozen chandaliers, make this a visual feast while the language is as relevant today as it was in 1700 when the play is set.
Jo-Stone-Fewings as Mirabell and Richard Clothier (the adulterous Fainall) believe they are masters of their own destinies but, in reality, it is the women in Congreve’s story who hold all the aces.
Lady Wishfort refuses to make allowances in her search for a husband while a very modern-thinking Millamont (Claire Price) sets the agenda before agreeing to marriage. Even the female servants (a great cameo by Jenna Augen as Wishfort’s servant Foible) drive the story to its conclusion.
The Way of the World runs until May 5. For tickets and more information about CFT’s 50th anniversary season call the box office 01243 781312 or go online www.cft.org.uk.