The Fantastic Follies Of Mrs Rich

Or The Beau Defeated

Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre



The Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell brought Puritan values cruelly to the fore. It saw an appalling wastage of church paintings and stained glass, and not least, saw theatres lose the entitlement to present plays.

The return of Charles II brought, partly French inspired, a much welcomed restoration of the values that had made the stage, early in the century, a high point of the arts in England.

True, it was largely men who dominated the theatre in several respects: hence the importance of figures like Davenant and Betterton, entrepreneurs aided by royal patent, and later Colley Cibber; and the growth to prominence of playwrights like Congreve, Vanbrugh, Etherege, Southerne and the riotous Wycherley

Comedy declined somewhat in the 1680s, not helped by financial pressures, but it was back a decade later and, full of sexual intrigue and licence (hence not immune to attempted prosecution), flourished by the mid 1690s, sometimes called the ‘second Restoration Comedy renaissance’.

Already under Charle II’s edict women had assumed their rightful roles, and actresses, most notably Mary Betterton, Nell Gwyn (the royal favourite), Elizabeth Barry (famed for tragic roles) and Anne Bracegirdle each won their own supporters’ hearts and accolades.

The repertoire was becoming ever more bawdy, and naughtily suggestive scenes were quite the norm, while breeches roles, women dressed as men, were also common.

But what of female playwrights? In the 1680s Aphra Behn emerged as a leading figure; others were Eliza Haywood, Delarivier (Delarivière) Manley and Catherine Trotter, each of whom produced stageworks of tangible merit.

Mrs Rich

Sophie Stanton is a delight as Mrs Rich. Pictures: Helen Maybanks.

If all these were proficient, if not inspired, the one the RSC has selected to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage is Mary Pix (1666 to 1709). And given the flair, wit, slyness and merriment of this production at The Swan of The Beau Defeated, here not without good cause described as ‘The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich,’ and first staged in 1700, one can see the astonishing talent, even genius, of this neglected dramatist.

This play is huge fun. It positively gushes with elegant or wrily ironic characters. The Director, Jo Davies, has a replete track record with leading opera companies, and here brings such beautiful precision and finesse to nearly all the characterisation, he ensures the production moves with joyous alacrity and needles the audience with clever jibing at every turn.

His heroine, or the lead role, is the said Mrs. Rich. Sophie Stanton is pure joy from start to finish, her face a constantly changing picture, her tongue sharp as a breadknife (‘All wig and no brains’; ‘Alas, what satisfaction can a lady give to a lady?’). She dominates the stage effortlessly at every entry. Her little asides, her quirky gestures, her wondrous glee and ability to turn events to her own advantage, are all delicious. She cuts a big figure, and buoyantly, brazenly sweeps us along with her.

To what end? The play is, as often with this genre, all about women seeking men and men seeking women. Mrs. Rich ends up with the elder of two brothers  (Leo Wringer), a country type who brings on to the stage two (probably) Afghan hounds, whose eagerness and perfect manners provide endless entertainment under their handler (Amanda Hadingue, hilariously rustic, and fresh from The Duchess of Malfi).


Lossie as Lossie, Leo Wringer as Elder Clerimont, Theia as Theo

and Jessica Turner as Mrs Clerimont

Wringer is deliciously earthy yet also titled: his decent hearted eagerness wins him the prize.

Clerimont has an aunt (Jessica Turner), a thoroughly civilised, right thinking type who cannot help getting caught up in the shenanigans. More importantly, his younger brother is also on the prowl for a partner, Solomon Israel as young Clerimont gives on of the best, most joyous performances in a terrific cast, brilliantly disciplined and perfectly enacted, his eyes afire and his wit unceasing.

The cast shows amazing strength in depth.  Take Jack, Israel’s footman and general factotum (Will Brown, also memorable in The Duchess of Malfi): a vividly drawn character, endlessly tolerant, full of forbearance and loyalty amid sighs of infuriation and reluctant grunts, and brilliantly funny in his own right (one carefully plotted sequence with a returned purse was a hoot; his dealings with a pissed landlady, brilliant from both). He must surely be destined for great things. His opposite number is Betty (Laura Elsworthy), Mrs. Rich’s messenger, not afraid to tease or advise: both she and Jack have something of the Plautine servant about them: those aides who actually are more canny than their superiors, and able subtly to manipulate them.

The male roles are perhaps more pallid in this primarily, and so successfully, female oriented play. Tam Williams hunts for a bluff character in Sir John Roverhead, a jolly cove with a secret or two. Michael Simkins finds the right indignation, high principle, irritability (‘You gilt gingerbread’) and finally acquiescence for the gloomily insistent brother in law, Mr. Rich. Greg Barnett offers a decent friend and go between, Belvoir; I liked Tarek Merchant as the loyal supporter, named (curiously) Chris, a small but telling role.


Susan Salmon as Lady La Basset

But it is the women who make the running both in script and in acting. Susan Salmon as Lady La Basset scuttles around the stage as a larger than life character, full of solutions, occasionally intelligent ones, as to what should be done. Daisy Badger is a delight as a red clad Lady Landsworth, who plays intriguing lower class games in the hope of roping her man. In fact, it is the many elements of intimate conversation and two way dialogue and banter that, in the first half especially, make Pix’s play so vigorous, slick and fast moving: Stanton’s Mrs. Rich with Betty, or with Rich, or with anyone in sight, Badger’s Landsworth again with Betty, Jack with Clerimont, the lovely emergence of Aretha Ayeh as the lovelorn niece Lucinda, the busy patter (with sundry) of Mrs. Clerimont: each of these bustling exchanges contributes tangibly.

The special joy of an interpretation for me was Sandy Foster as the impossibly snooty, conniving Mrs. Trickwell. To watch the pouting or shivering lip, the delicious sneers, the bitchy snarls, the scoffing row of little teeth, the endless ways of showing derision, climaxed when she tears off her overclothes and embarks on a hilarious, impossibly laughable duel, woman on woman, with her chum Mrs. Rich, was like observing a show of her own. Just possibly fractionally overdone, but I wouldn’t change any of it. An astonishing creation, fresh and devious as a daisy.

The use of a (beautifully articulate) saxophone quartet to provide the music, including some Don Giovanni at the start (Grant Olding), worked rather well. What didn’t, I suggest, is the half dozen songs allocated to Mrs. Rich: ‘What kind of woman’; ‘Fortune is smiling’) missed the boat. The melodies, worthy of Julie Andrews, added nothing. The words were thin.

The composer’s justification is this: ‘During song the world can stop and we see, beat by beat, into the heart of a character in a way that speech rarely allows us. We wanted the audience to see her glee, her insecurities, her anger, her childish delight, the steely drive for advancement. The songs allow her mask to slip and for us to see the real Mrs. Rich in all her desperate, witty, ambitious glory’. What piffle. It’s all there in the text. The songs may have tickled the crowd, but they enlightened us not one bit. 

The other complaint is about synopses. Why it is that more and more companies, and here even the RSC, feel that a synopsis is unnecessary, or that other background material, valuable though that be, is more important than a simple expose of the events in an unknown play, leaves me bewildered. In an opera that would never occur. Why must our theatres so casually omit the order of events of a lively but complicated drama?

What did lift the play no end was the delicious costumes. Colin Richmond, as designer, devised the most splendiferous display in all the dresses, and the spirited contrast thereof. What an utter treat, and how apt. One moment, apart from the stripping off of Mrs. Trickwell to a kind of glorified corset will suffice: the glorious irony when Mr. Rich emerges, gloriously ironically, in her ample wedding attire. How we laughed. For Mary Pix, a triumph. To 14-06-18    

Roderic Dunnett


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