REVIEW: The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until July 7.

Jonathan Munby's production of The Country Wife sets itself the strangest of challenges.

Susannah Fielding as The Country Wife - Photo by Manuel Harlan
Susannah Fielding as The Country Wife - Photo by Manuel Harlan

It plonks a massive obstacle in its own path – and then, remarkably, pretty much overcomes it in a sparkling second half, thanks largely to a superb performance from Susannah Fielding as the country wife of the title. She’s fresh, she’s fun and she’s funny.

The decision to set William Wycherley’s 1675 Restoration comedy in the present day in present-day costume is instantly alienating, especially with the jarring music. It all seems to smack of an almost desperate “Hey, guys, we’ve found this dusty old play, but do you know what? It still rocks, hashtag, hashtag, hashtag.”

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There’s even a photograph of a Harvey Weinstein #MeToo poster in the programme. How crass is that. You wonder why, if the play’s so great, no one seems remotely prepared to trust in its ability to speak to us without being propped up and contemporised at every turn.

But fortunately for everyone, it’s the play itself that has the last laugh.

Helped by fine performances all round, all remarkable in their fluency, Wycherley’s words manage to break through the nonsense and tell us: there really weren’t any cobwebs that needed nuking.

The play a cracker as it is, a genuine romp with language that draws out the very best in its actors, scintillating wordplay which almost lets you forget the mistakes made in the production planning.

But the night’s real joy is Susannah Fielding’s performance as the country bumpkin wife fast learning the ways of the city. She naïve, but certainly not stupid; and she’s also cunning, resourceful and most definitely out for a good time.

Fielding plays it all with infinite relish. The beauty of her performance is the playfulness she brings to it all – and the huge expressiveness she conjures. She is a delight to watch.

And like all good plays, even as we laugh, The Country Wife still leaves us uneasy.

Yes, it rollicks along on its own merry-ground of sexual pleasures sought, denied and variously satisfied, but it still manages to shock with the cruelty which underpins so much of the abysmal behaviour on display here. John Hodgkinson as the husband is a vicious brute in this tale of Harry Horner’s attempt to persuade the world that physically he’s incapable of the seduction he’s plotting. Lex Shrapnel is excellent as Horner.

The first half gets bogged down and drags at times, but the way it all comes together in the end is beautifully orchestrated. But #LetsGoEasyOnTheTrendyUpdatings….