The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘entertaining staging of a lost play’
One of a number of ‘female wits’ writing during the Restoration, Mary Pix’s name and her work have been largely forgotten. Now, the Royal Shakespeare Company has unearthed her 1700 comedy The Beau Defeated, and refashioned it as The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich.
It’s a play about power and ambition. Mrs Rich (Sophie Stanton), the widow of a banker, has desires to live a large life and ascend the social ladder, to become a “person of quality” and maybe even acquire a title. She has the fancy clothes, the necessary equipage and is in the process of learning the ways of the gaming table, but she lacks a man.
She is courted by Sir John Roverhead, a conniving fop in embroidered stockings (Tam Williams). Later, she is admonished for her acquisitive behaviour by her late husband’s brother, Mr Rich (Michael Simkins), for having the temerity to want more than her lot. Sir John, it turns out, is also pursuing Mrs Rich’s naïve young niece – he’s not fussy as long as she’s moneyed and easy on the eye.
Subplots abound. Lady Landsworth (Daisy Badger), another wealthy widow, tests the moral substance of the impoverished Young Clerimont (Solomon Israel) by pretending to be a courtesan. Most of the characters are scheming in some way, even if their goals differ.
Jo Davies, who previously directed Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl for the RSC, makes a good case for the play. The plotting is often convoluted and the pacing of the first half is pretty sluggish, but in Mrs Rich it has a complex and intriguing protagonist. It places a woman and her wants at its heart. Mrs Rich craves status and is not ashamed of it. She might have money but, as a woman who is getting older and whose place in society is shifting, she wants more – she wants “to live as I please.”
Grant Olding has written some musical monologues to give her more of a voice. These are a bit on the nose at times, articulating too cleanly what is already fairly obvious, but they’re amiably performed by Stanton. She brings warmth, relative subtlety and fine comic timing to a role that could have ended up feeling brash and all too easily ridiculed. The performances are variable but there’s entertaining work from Williams as the shameless Sir John and Laura Elsworthy as Mrs Rich’s spiky maidservant.
The spray-painted backdrops feel a little tired, but Colin Richmond’s costumes are a delight, particularly those of Mrs Rich. She wears dresses that would not look out of place in a Laduree window display and a wig reminiscent of a croquembouche. As is the way of such things, everything and everyone gets upstaged by the arrival of two delightfully shaggy dogs.
Though there are places where it sags, Davies’ staging demonstrates Pix’s skill as a comic writer while also Illustrating the social unease that has always surrounded women who want things and aren’t afraid to show it.