The Lottery of Love - at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Laughter is the jackpot in this simple contest of love over mistaken identity

Ashley Zhangazha and Dorothea Myer-Bennett

No matter what the century or society, social convention and restrictive rules are no match for animal instinct when it comes to choosing a suitable mate to marry. And the proof is in this delightful comedy that wickedly digs at snobbery and youthful ignorance.

Written in France in the early 18th century, by the impressively named Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, and translated and transplanted to Regency England by the author John Fowles in the 1980s, this is a diminutive delight on the Orange Tree stage.

The initial plot is straightforward enough. A headstrong and slightly spoilt young woman wants to check out the man her father suggests she should marry. So she swaps places with her maid. Little knowing that her beau-to-be has had exactly the same idea. And then, says the play, look what happens when people don’t know their place.

Keir Charles and Claire Lams

Fowles was a big fan of Jane Austen, hence the Regency timeline, but where Austen’s heroines are often led, initially, to the wrong men who appear to tick all the right respectability boxes, the Marivaux model is lustily earthier.

Comedy up this close has to be really finely tuned to work and the cast of six strike just the right balance. Down-to-earth maidservant Louisa, deftly played by Claire Lams, addresses members of the audience as much as her mistress and soon has them tacitly agreeing with her views of men. Fiancée-to-be Sylvia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) manages to be both sympathetic while cluelessly self-centred. You can’t help but feel for a young woman petrified of finding herself at the mercy of a man in a loveless arranged marriage even if she hasn’t a clue what love is.

Claire Lams and Pip Donaghy

Their household is completed by Sylvia’s steadying father, played by Pip Donaghy, and playful brother Martin (Tam Williams), both of whom are in on the courting couple’s plots and, when not stirring things up, enjoying the confusion immensely.

And it’s all girly fun until dashing Richard (Ashley Zhangazha), the man in question arrives, dressed as a manservant and yet, notices Sylvia uncomfortably, with the vocabulary and courtesy of a high court judge. He’s equally confused to be thrust together with such a well-spoken and -mannered maid-servant.

All four are struck hopelessly and thunderously by what appears to them to be baseless sexual desire when every rule of their book says you can only love your equal and any other course would be catastrophic for their whole families. Marivaux/Fowles dig mercilessly amusing holes for their characters to trip into while trying to square the circle of simply falling in love in a class-ridden and unequal society.

But the maypole of merriment around which all the other characters get tied up like brightly coloured ribbons is Richard’s manservant Brass. This creation by actor Keir Charles offers the foppiest, dandiest and dippiest impression of the upper classes. Even his struggle to pronounce vowels properly appears to sinuously engage his whole body, while variously pouting and baring his teeth at Louisa, with whom he is smitten, like a character plucked from a Gillray cartoon.
Racing and prancing around the prop-free stage, he needs every square inch afforded by designer Simon Daws’ less-is-more setting. Only a mass of candles and flower posies above the actors heads, and the fluffy-clouded skies dressing the circle, hint at stately-home candelabras and dainty wedding day bouquets.

And, of course, of a happy ending ....... eventually.

Liz Vercoe

Photographs: Helen Maybanks

April 7, 2017