Playing the coquette

June 26, 1998

THE BASSET TABLE. By Susanna Centlivre. Tricycle Theatre.

All too many early modern women writers are prudes rather than coquettes, to cite the stereotypes of the Restoration theatre; so it is a joy to encounter Susanna Centlivre, who is all coquette. The programme tells us that she wrote The Basset Table to "correct and rectify manners", after her previous play The Gamester (1705) had rewarded its leading characters too richly. Yet any "correction" here seems the merest and shallowest afterthought to a glorious carnival of gaming and foolery and girl-power. She was surely playing the coquette with her critics. Certainly the "prude" character in The Basset Table, "Lady Lucy, a religious sober lady", though beautifully performed by Sara Powell, is entirely a fish out of water, to use an apt image in a play which strongly features live sailors and dead fish, not to mention dead dogs and giant tapeworms.

The moralistic Lady Lucy seems in desperate need of sparking up by her histrionic and rakish suitor, Sir James Courtly (Tom McGovern). The women who rule the waves are the pleasure-seeking Lady Reveller (Harriet Thorpe), her jolly maidservant (Sandra James-Young) and the bourgeois big-spender Mrs Sago (Patti Love). But the real scene-stealer is the exquisite Valeria (Clare McCarron), whose devotion to natural philosophy, or experimental science - she wears spectacles that light up to scrutinize the circulation of blood in a huge fish - comes across as both farcical and deeply touching in an age that is only now beginning to cherish women scientists. Though marriage is, of course, compulsory - this is not a comedy that challenges any generic rules - a modern audience can take comfort in Valeria's union with the nice but dim Ensign Lovely (Jake Broder). Emerging from grotesque disguise as a naval officer, he wins her recognition by reminding her of "how we fished for eels in vinegar together"; perhaps he will be her lab assistant in future years. It is all marvellously shallow stuff, handled in Polly Irvin's confident and inventive production as sendup and sitcom, with frequent touches of pantomime. Eye-scorching costumes, strobe lighting, and music that alternates between souped-up minuet and Blackadder pastiche keep things moving too quickly for serious reflection.

Yet one theme that does emerge is the power of acting. More than most comedies, The Basset Table is riddled with actorly and theatrical references. The alternative delights of the gaming table and the playhouse are debated early on, and it is quite evident - despite the play's title - that the playhouse wins. The lively footman Buckle (Robert McKewley) is praised for his stagey rendering of his master's love-melancholy, and it is by means of acting - good, bad and ham - that the plot is resolved. Characters who stay stolidly the same, like Lady Lucy and the anachronistic Petrarchan lover Lord Worthy (Charles Daish), are dependent on the versatile acting skills of others to help them achieve their goals. The swashbuckling Captain Firebrand (Mike Hayley) both offers a splendidly over-the-topmast performance himself, and gets some fairly decent acting out of his raw recruits. The "airy gentleman", Courtly, has some excellent tricks up his sleeve.

Wild Iris theatre company deserves every encouragement. This is just the kind of production that would work superbly at the Swan in Stratford, and the company's boldness in presenting an unfamiliar early play in such a sharp and streetwise style is reminiscent of the Royal Shakespeare Company in better days. In this sense, too, The Basset Table is a play "about" acting: about the energy and resourcefulness of the non-mainstream. It would be good to see Wild Iris offering a full season of plays by the Female Wits of the Restoration.

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