If you’re around forty or younger it’s very likely you won’t have seen Congreve or many Restoration comedies staged in London at all as they seem to have been out fashion for a couple of decades. That could be changing as James MacDonald’s revival of The Way of the World’ in period costume brings men trotting onto stage in big wigs and heels as well as particularly fabulous parts for women, in a world of wicked banter and social power games.

Never was any prose so quick’ said Virginia Woolf of Congreve and the artful dialogue certainly keeps you on your toes. Written in 1700 it is not an easy listen, but the actors handle the text with such dexterity, the complex wordplay glints with crystal clarity. If the plot was at times hard to follow, it was from my failure to remember the characters names which are essential to understand the social scheming. I recommend familiarising yourself with the names before watching and establishing who’s who from the word go.

Set in high society, Fainall plans to steal his wife’s inheritance, divorce her and move onto his lover, Mrs Marwood. His friend Mirabell really wants to marry Millamant who isn’t sure marriage is such a good idea. Whilst these four characters drive the plot, every part is rich with possibility and precise characterisation. It’s a joy to be alongside them in the Donmar’s intimate space as they plot and scheme behind fans and across chaise longues.

Justine Mitchell’s Millamant is intriguing on many levels, her expression twisting as thoughts seem to race across her mind as rapidly as her words slice the air. She is capricious and determined yet vulnerable like Shakespeare’s Beatrice (Much Ado) before her and Noel Cowards, Amanda (Private Lives) after her. Deliciously damning about marriage, ‘I may by degrees dwindle into a wife’ she has a hilarious list of pre nup demands before she will accept Mirabell’s proposal, the latter played with genuine charm by Geoffrey Streatfeild.

There is no weak link in this production but Fisayo Akinade’s Witwoud undoubtedly steals the show. The audience visibly relaxed as he took to the stage, with the irresistible warmth and a half smile that captured the irreverence of the true fop. I could have watched him strut around Anna Fleishcle’s grand set for hours. Given that it’s not a short play, running at three hours, that all worked out pretty well.
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