Novelist Fanny Burney wrote four satiric comedies, none performed or published in her lifetime, although in recent years an adaptation of A Busy Day twice made it to the West End.
Given in the complete text, Sam Walters’ world premiere of Burney’s 1801 masterpiece might also have benefited from revision during rehearsal as would have happened with a living author.
Even so a splendid cast of Orange Tree regulars makes this not just a three-hour nod to theatre scholarship, but an evening to cherish with another glorious performance by Auriol Smith as the literary Lady Smatters. She hilariously brings half-remembered quotations into every conversational exchange, and her susceptibility to poetry prompted her to jilt her suitor Sir Roderick and wed a short-lived but ennobled versifier.
Her betrayal turned Sir Roderick into a roaring misogynist, played with relish by Clive Francis, even breaking off relations with his sister Eleonora who had presumed to marry Lady Smatters’ brother Wilmot then abandoned her husband and child in dubious circumstances.
Thus the scene is set for the romantic emotions of the second generation to be blighted by the mismatching of their elders in a series of cleverly contrived encounters, although of course love finally triumphs.
That the director is not taking the play too seriously is suggested by the cartoon-style stage design by Sam Dowson and a costume convention combining 18th century formality with late-20th century casuals. But the delights of the evening largely reside in the performances including Joan Moon playing the wan Eleonora, Michael Elwyn as her estranged, mercurial husband, plus a masterclass in drollery by David Gooderson portraying a sly oldster beguiled into timid lechery by his son’s innocent sweetheart who mistakes him for the woman-hating Sir Roderick.