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The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich - RSC Review

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Females centre of action in restoration comedy
In a year that marks the centenary since women started getting the right to vote in England, this new Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production seems an apt choice to celebrate females.

fantastic follies of Mrs Rich, Sophie Stanton, RSC, photo by Helen Maybanks
Vibrant fun sets in this comedy of manners

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich - originally called The Beau Defeated - was written not just by a woman more than 300 years ago but also for women and about them. It has strong female leads at the centre of all the action (along with a talented quartet of female musicians), and is very much from a female point of view on the art of social climbing.

The RSC has also picked a female director Jo Davies to do the honours on this comedy of manners showing at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until June 14. The story is by Mary Pix, a lesser known female playwright who emerged in the late 17th Century.

It's a frivolous, fun affair from the start and the RSC has jazzed it up with an edginess of modernity, like marketing it under the new title The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich and transforming it into a semi-musical with some great cabaret-style numbers.

There's also an almost neon bright set of wonderfully vibrant French influenced costumes and accessories, while graffiti is scrawled across historic painted backdrops to set the scene and music is supplied by four female saxophonists (rather than a string quartet).

Those modern elements strike a chord with director Jo Davies's previous RSC production in 2014, when she took on Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl and set it in Victorian London with costumes influenced by the punk styles of Vivienne Westwood.

fantastic follies of Mrs Rich, Sophie Stanton, RSC, photo by Helen Maybanks
Sophie Stanton is electrifying as Mrs Rich

At the heart of this story is the ridiculous social-climbing Mrs Rich, a Hyacinth Bucket of her day, who just wants to have the power and respect of being a lady of high society with a title. She has all the money in the world as the widow of a wealthy banker but lacks the contacts and manners, dropping in odd French phrases every chance she gets.

Actress Sophie Stanton, playing Mrs Rich, quickly gets a rapport with the audience with her side glances and knowing looks. She's a force to be reckoned with on stage and her solo song performances are real treasures. A little bit Dietrich with self-awareness combined with nonchalance.

Stanton is recognisable as a regular face of many a TV drama from EastEnders to Lewis and Ashes To Ashes, as is Michael Simkins playing her brother-in-law, the only person to criticise her for her actions. Their warring scenes together are a blast and the funniest of the production. There's a real comic chemistry between these two.

fantastic follies of Mrs Rich, Sophie Stanton, RSC, photo by Helen Maybanks
Dogs are part of the plot twists in this comedy by the RSC

As with most restoration comedies, there's a crazy plot of twists, mistaken identities and similar shenanigans that aren't based on any form of reality. The best thing is to sit back, suspend belief and enjoy the mischief-making.

In The Fantastic Follies, we have social-climbing Mrs Rich chasing after a lord - Sir John Roverhead - who unbeknown to her is a conman and also after a series of wealthy ladies, including Mrs Rich's niece.

In a second plot, a visitor to Mrs Rich's home, Lady Landsworth, is a young and beautiful widow who has fallen in love with the moping disinherited younger gentleman from the Clerimont family, who for some bizarre reason decides to tests his love for her by pretending to be a prostitute.

Meanwhile, a cousin to the Clerimonts sets about putting things right by matchmaking between the elder Clerimont and Mrs Rich.

Daisy Badger, whose voice is well known as Pip Archer in The Archers, makes her debut for the RSC as Lady Landsworth and has a natural ease on stage. She's a calm air of cunning next to the over-excitable and witty Mrs Rich.

fantastic follies of Mrs Rich, Sophie Stanton, RSC, photo by Helen Maybanks
The play was written by Mary Pix

Writer Mary Pix wrote plays aimed at the female actresses of the time and the male leads in this story tend to take a back seat, or are ridiculed in various ways.

The younger Clerimont (Solomon Israel) is a moaning wreck, the elder Clerimont (Leo Wringer) is unrefined and more in love with his dogs than anything else, and Sir John Roverhead (Tam Williams) is a caricature of a self-obsessed dandy. It's the women who take control and attract the most attention, but then I think Davies has also steered it that way.

The other characters allowed to steal the limelight, however, are two adorable lurchers as Elder Clerimont's beloved dogs. They attract coos of attention from the crowd whenever they are on stage and were amazingly well trained.

This play and its author have been forgotten to some degree over time as the plot is quite confusing and ridiculous, but this revival has done a good job in bringing out the best from this work. Its forte is the female characterisations, especially the exuberant Mrs Rich.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich is a feel-good and zestful production that brings alive the uber-extravagance and excesses of the period. It also has some striking female performances, which is what this play was, after all, created for.

RATING: 3.5 / 5

Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins plus a 20 mins interval
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Why? See a frivolous, fun comedy by the RSC
When: Until June 14
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Swan Theatre
Cost: From 5
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