Review: The Beaux Stratagem

Unwedded bliss makes for a strategically enjoyable farce


The title of George Farquhar's 1707 play refers to the strategy of Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild), "two gentlemen of broken fortune" who intend to rebuild it through marriage. Their quarry is an heiress and her sister, even though the former's fortune is inconveniently tied to her husband. More promisingly, that marriage is on the rocks. Despite Farquhar's Irish origins, there is a decidedly un-Catholic, perhaps English - dare one even say Jewish - pragmatism to unhappy marriages here that could be summarised as "for everyone's sake, get a divorce".

The action is set in Lichfield, or more specifically, two houses. One belongs to the Sullen family, home to the unhappy union between the revolting Mr Sullen and his fragrant wife (Susannah Fielding). The other is an inn of ill repute, which also serves as the lodgings of Farquhar's heroes, various highwaymen and French officers, prisoners of war who nevertheless have the run of the town.

Lizzie Clachan's ingenious rubic cube of a design works as both houses. Décor is changed when needed with the help of sliding walls around which is wrapped a staircase that brings to mind Penrose's infinite steps. They prove useful as the plot - everybody has a plot here - evolves into something like an early version of a knockabout farce. This means there are holes in the story you could drive a horse and carriage through. But in Simon Godwin's latest, beautifully judged National Theatre revival of a rarely staged classic, the evening pivots on a series of strategically placed knowing winks that evoke laughter instead of incredulity, especially when musicians conveniently appear for the set-piece songs.

Late in the evening the pace dips just when it needs to rise, but the manic whole is buoyed by the charisma of the beaux, especially Streatfeild's, whose likable Archer finds his target with - as Fielding's unjustly neglected wife discovers - irresistible panache.

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