Maids and wives are lovely stuff

Wives As They Were, and Maids As The Are by Elizabeth Inchbald at Bury Theatre Royal until September 20.This is an evening sheer delight, as it must have been when it was first performed in 1788.

David Henshall

Wives As They Were, and Maids As The Are by Elizabeth Inchbald at Bury Theatre Royal until September 20.

This is an evening sheer delight, as it must have been when it was first performed in 1788. It may have put a few masculine noses out of joint but the ladies would have loved it because here was an author cocking a gentle snook at the male-dominated society of the time.

Elizabeth Inchbald was a feminist long before the word was coined, fighting quietly for the rights of women but doing so by employing those wiles for which her sex is so rightly famous. In this case it is largely wit that thoroughly undermines the status quo of 18th century man.


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As in most of her plays, Inchbald introduces a strong, free-thinking heroine to make her points but in this one Maria Dorrillon has rushed her modern fences a bit. She's a leader of fashion. It's not so much a question of clothes, more a matter of breaking boundaries, showing a lack of respect for those who regard themselves as her elders and betters and in her slightly debatable behaviour with a lot of beaus.

But money is Maria's achilles heel. She spends it like water and owes a lot of cash to creditors and, if she can't find someone to bail her out, the debtor's prison looms. She has one other weakness: her love for the father she has never seen, Sir William Dorrillon. He has been making his fortune in India while she is looked after by her guardian, Mr Norberry (Michael Burrell)

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Using a false name, Sir William arrives in London to give his daughter the once over and is appalled by her rudeness and unladylike manners. A stickler for justice and duty, he doesn't tell her who he is and they are constantly at each other's throats. Laura Doddington and Tim Francis give these roles great fire and substance.

Meanwhile, Inchbald is carefully mixing in a priceless collection of characters who keep the laughs coming in a constant stream. Lord Priory (John Webb) is pompously proud of his antediluvian attitude to all women and to his cowed wife in particular, who he forces into bed at 10 each night and pushes out to start his breakfast at six every morning.

Lady Mary Raffle (Ursula Early) is Maria's rather louche friend, equally in debt, and Alexander Caine plays the prattish man-about-town Sir George Evelyn, desperate to marry Maria.

But the best incarnation is James Wallace's cad and seducer supreme, Mr Bronzely. Bubbling over with so much cocksure self-confidence, he even takes a tilt at Lord Priory's plain wife played with clever humour and supressed excitement by Joannah Tincey.

Who wins this battle of the sexes? That would be telling but, suffice it to say, that this is a nicely-costumed stylish production bursting with joyous life and good humour. And on certain evenings you can see this play and another Inchbald, Animal Magnetism. Double lovely stuff.

David Henshall.

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