“I’m not showing you my monkey”
Miranda loves Sir George Airey but wants to make him work for her hand whilst fending off her lecherous guardian Sir Francis Gripe, whose son Charles is in love with Isabinda whose marvellously named mother Lady Jealous Traffic is determined to marry her off to a Spanish merchant. There's also a monkey, or is there? Such is the set-up for The Busy Body, a 1709 period comedy by Susanna Centlivre which was one of the most popular plays of its day but has remained unproduced for over 100 years. Continuing their close relationship with the Southwark Playhouse, Red Handed Theatre have alternated emotionally devastating dramas (Palace of the End, Someone To Watch Over Me) with sparklingly refreshed Restoration comedies (The Rivals, The Belle's Stratagem) to great effect and director Jessica Swale's adroit adaptation looks set to continue that exceptionally strong run.
What really makes it work though is the immense attention to detail. It is a comedy for sure, but one which is played true and so delivery remains deadpan throughout, no matter how random the plot turns - Michael Lindall's Spanish dress and raised eyebrow as the disguised Charles the best example here, though Alexandra Guelff's (Miranda) determined protection of her monkey comes a close second. And comic flourishes abound at every turn – Ella Smith's Isabinda in particular is fearsomely, inventively funny in every single scene she is in and Henry Shields doubles to brilliant effect as Charles’ man Whisper and Lady Jealous’ butler – and the fourth wall is well and truly smashed (shy wallflower types might want to avoid the front row!) Directly addressing the audience is nothing new but the conviction and skill with which it is essayed here, both when being played for laughs and cleverly also in the more tenderly emotional moments, means that every beat seeks to involve and include us all.
And though this may be the third foray into the world of Restoration comedy for Swale, it is clear to see that this is a director honing and refining their craft, no lazy retreads here. The knowing post-modern touch of the arrangements of current pop songs has gone, replaced with an original soundtrack of songs composed by Swale and MD Harriet Oughton which removes the slight archness with something that feels integrally connected to the production and the minstrels’ consequent interjections are just delightful, amusing and tuneful. There’s also a greater confidence in the extent to which the audience are folded into the warm embrace of the play, a greater trust invested in us to be sure but one which pays dividends in the connection and engagement that it engenders.
Simon Kenny’s deceptively simple set design of revolving triangular pillars keeps the stage remarkably uncluttered but also allows for moments of staging ingenuity – the way in which the two levels of a balcony scene are played is just hilarious yet brilliant, and leads to a witty pay-off with the final exit. And by the time the cast dance their exuberant jig that follows the sung epilogue, a smile will surely have cracked on the hardest of faces. Joyous and warm, frivolous and funny, The Busy Body is a charming delight and highly recommended. Plus you get to see from where the term "monkey business" may have originated, what more could you want.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 6th October
Originally written for The Public Reviews