Love For Love (Bristol Old Vic)

Cast of Love for Love photo by Graham Burke

Bristol Old Vic’s graduates have signed off with two rollicking fun shows that have showcased the depth of batting and versatility of this band of players. Following the fun but occasionally over-egged The Grand Gesture, the other half of the year turn to Love for Love, William Congreve’s 1695 Restoration comedy of deceit, sexual dalliances and mistaken identity. Restoration comedy, along with Coward, is undoubtedly the hardest style to get to grips with for the modern actor; more inclined to have been influenced by movies, Brando and Day-Lewis, the arch, camp tone can feel false and can lead to productions being a chore for audience and performer alike. Not here. The acting is sure and truthful, witty and fruitful, with nary a false note, they alchemise the modern with the superficial tones and come out discovering gold. Bristol, with its recent productions of School for Scandal and The Beaux Stratagem; now this; is turning me into a closeted restoration fan.

It’s helped by a beautifully realised design that converts the beautiful Georgian architecture of the Old Vic main auditorium into a recreation of the staging it may have originally been presented. Lit by candlelight, with beautifully painted back cloths and stunning Georgian costumes and wigs, it is wonderful work by graduating designers Lizzie Leech (set) and Elina Pieridou (costumes) that threatens to steal the show. In all the clamour about the quality of work of the actors we forget that they produce designers of the ilk of Bob Crowley, recent Tony winner for his work on multiple Broadway shows. The design here is impressive and a real sign of intent for the next generation.

There’s something of slab a into slot b approach to plotting with these Restoration yarns. The plot here won’t feel unfamiliar if you know your Farquhar and Sheridan. A rakish young man Valentine (Timothy Innes), deep in debt and in love with Pippa Moss’ pretty, principled Angelina, is forced to sign away his inheritance to his younger brother recently returned from sea. Congreve favours the bad guy turned good by love of a strong lady: he is no better than any of the other rakes, chancers and gossips in this world but he does have a genuine attachment and it is this that will ultimately redeem him. Like Poor Tom on the heath, he adorns the outward sign of madness at one point only to discover his humility along the way.

There is something of Dan Stephens’ aesthete Nick in Line of Beauty to Innes’ Valentine, likeable despite himself and Moss is a resourceful counterpoint whose plan eventually sees everything through, but it is in the supporting roles where everyone really cuts loose. From Amy Barnes and Rosie Nicholls gossiping women, more than happy to whore themselves for leverage, to Sam Woolf’s foppish Tattle and Shala Nyx country girl ward, more than willing to take command in the matter of love There’s not a wrong note here. When Ryan McKen storms the stage as a towering Amazonian nurse, even the passé drag turn becomes a well-sketched highlight.

At a shade over three hours it could use a small edit to cut out the occasional lull but it’s a strong, confide and sometimes dazzling production artistic director Jenny Stephens has put together. It’s a great last hurrah for the class of 2015. Watch these names with interest.

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