Review: The Way of the World by William Congreve at Chichester Festival Theatre

IN THE context of the social and political revolution in which it was born in 1700, The Way of the World is a technical masterpiece and linguistically brilliant.

Tuesday, 24th April 2012, 12:16 pm

It reflects, with great subtlety and observation the changing England – not least the role of women and the contrast between town and country.

There is a huge moral dimension to it, too, encapsulating the evolving mood of a nation.

But, despite its technical strengths, the public did not care much for it then – and 312 years later despite the generosity of time it has improved little.

This latest productions is rich in costume and design, but despite the best efforts of the cast it is crashingly dull.

It is simply not enough for a play to be worthy; and this one is a very poor opener to the 50th anniversary year in the main Festival Theatre house.

The plot is needlessly complex. On the surface, it focuses on two lovers Mirabell and Millamant who must receive the blessing of Millamant’s aunt, Lady Wishfort, in order to secure her dowry and marriage blessing.

But she is bitter, wishing her own nephew, Sir Wilful, to wed Millamant instead.

The redoubtable Penelope Keith injects every possible look and laugh into the role of Lady Wishfort – and in itself it is a bravura performance.

However, it is simply not enough.

The characters that inhabit this world do nothing to win the empathy of the audience. We care not what happens to them or their tedious, overly-complicated and self-indulgent existences.

Visually this is a stunning play. Technically it is superb. But none of this can compensate for a production so cold and dull that a doctor would be forced to conclude there was no life left in it - if, indeed, there ever had been.

Gary Shipton