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Fantastic Follies is a fantastic triumph

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich or the Beau Defeated, RSC Stratford, to June 14. The RSC has pulled off a masterpiece of programming in reviving this lost gem, Mary Pix’s Mrs Rich, a rollicking Restoration romp.

The timing could not be more appropriate: A look at the cast list shows gender parity, with predominantly female leads, and the script reverberates with questions: The place, rights and role of women; class and social mobility; town v country; North v South; while lampooning elitist snobbery and much despised bankers and the City.

The circle is completed by colour-blind casting, all of which makes for a perfect evening of period hilarity with a contemporary resonance. It opens sedately - a plain stage, bordered by shell footlights like a music hall. A quartet of bewigged female saxophonists and a harpsichord playing Bach’s Air on a G String, sets the tone of gentility. But then a backdrop of a painting (Reynolds?) crashes down, garishly daubed with “Mrs Rich’s House” and Sophie Stanton’s eponymous heroine bursts in like Are You Being Served's Mrs Slocombe, knickers displayed, to launch the proceedings properly. Her performance is towering, holding the entire play together throughout - at one moment Edina Monsoon, the next Hyacinth Bucket with flashes of Julian Clary. Every line of put down, indignation, surprise or scheming is delivered with perfect timing and the right angle of eyebrow or lip. It is fitting she gets the last post-curtain exit with a flourish of ankle and a hitch of her bustle. Her coterie of “friends”, Mrs Trickwell suitably played by Sandy Foster (channelling Ab Fab’s Patsy) and blousy Lady La Basset , an equally strong performance from Susan Salmon, are both grotesquely Hogarthian. They snap fans with staccato precision, much to the frustration of Lucinda Rich, the niece, an aptly truculent Aretha Ayeh, who has yet to manage this prerequisite for social acceptance. Mrs Rich’s maid, Betty (Laura Elsworthy) is the voice of sanity, but gets drawn into the machinations necessary for confusion and mistaken identity to ensue. The backdrops continue to be an art history pop quiz, Gainsborough? Constable? as we are taken to the park, the Clerimont’s house, and so on through the scenes. Only Mrs Fidget’s lodging house deviates, with a heavy line of carpets to be beaten framing the backstage. She creates another comic set piece, actor Sadie Shimmin necking claret with gusto, with the inevitable consequences. Where are the men, you may wonder? Manservant Jack (Will Brown) is loyal and true but misguidedly adds further complications, while Michael Simkins’ Mr Rich, our heroine’s pragmatic brother-in- law, is the voice and age of reason. Leo Wringer is delightfully over the top as the country huntsman, Elder Clerimont, together with his enormous hounds and crazy partner Toni (Amanda Hadingue) . But comedy honours on this side of the gender divide must go Tam Williams as the fraudulent Sir John Roverhead whose exaggerated foppishness are a match for Mrs Rich’s aspirational affectations. The creatives deserve equal plaudits. The production values, lighting, choreographed scene changes, detailing, music, props etc, are all world class. Unexpectedly, there are some delightful songs, giving Mrs Rich much deserved solo stage time as she moves the plot and explains motivation with the Gilbert and Sullivan-like Woman of Quality, and others such as the Rogers and Hammerstein-style What kind of Woman? Some of the one-liners are terrific. A 60-year-old woman is described as "a walking momento mori”, and Mrs Rich is put down with the immortal: “She’s a gilt gingerbread”.

Then there's the slapstick sword fight, the galloping coachman, the dogs, and more. And the satire and social comment transcend the centuries.

Mary Pix certainly deserves re-examination as a woman of substance. Suffice it to say it is a triumph and yet another must-see show from Stratford.

For tickets go to:

Pictured: Susan Salmon as Lady La Basset, Tom Williams as Sir John Roverhead, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich, and Sandy Foster as Mrs Trickwell (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)

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