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Monday 31st December 2007
Theatre Review | THE WOMAN HATER | Orange Tree Theatre

Production: The Woman Hater
Playwright: Fanny Burney
Producer: Orange Tree Theatre
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Address: 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA
Box Office: +44 (0)20 8940 3633
Dates: 19 December 2007 - 2 February 2008
Opened: 21 December 2007
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Reviewed by Joanna Bacon

Frances Burney's first play, The Witlings, was read by her father, the famous music historian Dr Charles Burney, to an assembled group of family and close friends. His and his friend Samuel Crisp's reaction to the satire was to dissuade her from allowing the play to be produced, despite the fact that Sheridan was standing by to do just that. She was 27 and already had published her witty novel Evelina with her father's help, one year previously in 1778.

Similar disapproval was given to her next play, Love and Fashion, and it is possible that by the time she wrote A Busy Day and The Woman Hater around 1800, these works were not offered for production or read by anyone at all. Although she was famous for Evelina, as well as her journals, her plays only really came to light in 1945 when her papers were acquired by the Berg Collection, and following Joyce Hemlow's seminal 1958 biography, there have been some powerful scholarly works concerning Fanny's writings. It is wonderful that the Orange Tree has chosen The Woman Hater as part of the season of female playwrights.

The play stands up admirably. Bright and witty, Ms Burney's comic and social perceptions are refined, the plot is carefully ordered and her acute psychological understanding means that we can identify with the characters and their plights despite holding a slightly different moral mind-set in the twenty-first century.

The production, though, seems creakier than the piece itself. Literally, actually, as the designer has chosen a plain cream-washed set including wooden flooring whose boards squeak and grate a lot of the time, particularly irritating at the top of the play when we are trying to take in a lot of exposition by listening to a long scene between Old and Young Waverley.

The Orange Tree is an intimate theatre, but remorseless in terms of there being no hiding place, and what with the stark lighting, minimalist furnishing and a totally confusing and pointless mixture of modern and other periods costume, I found the acting style in many cases rather too big for the space. The issues of reading and writing for power among females and the 'lower' classes go for nothing in the production, and they should ring out, even amid the comedy. The pace and stylisation are fitting, but some of the actors seem to have forgotten to play the truth, and instead think they must play 'comedy' or 'drama'.

David Gooderson is perfect as Old Waverley, and Auriol Smith as Lady Smatter, a peach of a part: Fanny Burney's literary and memory gags for this character are some of the best written. Jennifer Higham has the hardest task and acquitted herself well as Miss Wilmot, the holes in the design theme taking most toll on this character. Michael Elwyn's Wilmot is evocative and nicely judged, but it is a pity that the scenes of him being reunited with his estranged wife are directed as melodrama, virtually, when in this theatre the scene would be very moving if played smaller. Amy Neilson Smith is an absolute stand-out as Miss Henny Sapling, a small part perfectly performed, a masterclass in subtlety and timing for everyone who thinks they are 'playing' comedy in this production. She doubles as Phebe the maid, an even smaller part, which she treats with much care and detail. I can't wait to see her again.

Well done to the Orange Tree for choosing such a good season, with The Woman Hater being generally well cast, pacy and fun.

Joanna Bacon 2007

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