I love a play where the subtitle gives away the whole plot. It's the era of playmaking where all the characters are named with their characteristics (apparently known as aptonyms). And it is to this era, roughly around the time of Sheridan, that The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich (or The Beau Defeated) firmly belongs.
A good summer play and a good summer pudding have a lot in common, being ideally composed of equal parts light witty froth, a tangy bite, and at the same time good for you and a touch noble. Here we have at heart a panto with songs, which is historical enough to feel a bit educational (but not hard going), and quite strongly feminist, with a female author and plentiful, strong parts for women.
Mrs Rich, a widow, has discovered that all her money can't buy her what she really wants - entry into society. For that, she needs a title. Fortunately there are some impecunious lords around the place. Will everything work out neatly? Of course not! It's not too much of a spoiler to say that some of the Mrs Rich's friends are not looking out for her best interests, and there are plenty of plots to be twisted together before everyone ends up with their just desserts.
The comedy is knowing, ascerbic and still funny. In some senses Mrs Rich is a pantomime dame, but Pix's arts is in making her a distinct person not a type, and our empathy for her grows as her insecurities are revealed. We feel for her disappointments, and there are many, for she cannot dissemble like her courtly friends, and she doesn't have their rhinoceros-thick hides. Pix knew her leading ladies, and was writing specifically for the actresses who play the parallel widows Mrs Rich and Lady Landsworth (who has a title and youth on her side). These days, given a pairing like that, we'd probably cast the two as Mistress and Servant, to give them plenty of scenes together but actresses Sophie Stanton and Daisy Badger hardly appear together at all. They're not a double act in a modern sense.
Not a lot else strikes you as oddly historical - the costumes shift the action forward to Marie Antoinette's time, with soaring pouf-style periwigs and huge panniers to project the skirt several feet to either side. The language has also been updated, not so much as to intrude, but enough to make it smooth and easy to lose yourself in. It's not like ploughing through The Recruiting Officer in A-level English. The RSC don't recommend an edition of the original, as the only published one is apparently badly hacked about, but there is one online if you want to compare the source material.
There are songs in the original, but these have also been added to considerably by composer Grant Olding, to allow Mrs Rich to break the fourth wall and talk to us from her heart. To his credit I really wasn't sure the songs were contemporary, until we got to the rhyming "bottle of Bolly" with "a woman of quali...ty"! I was not so impressed by the composer's mansplaining Mrs Rich's character in the programme, suggesting through song she could allow her mask to slip, when I feel Mrs Rich's problems stem mainly from her lack of a mask in the first place. I was quite often reminded of Rodgers and Hart's Lady is a Tramp: Mrs Rich is all alone when she lowers her lamp...
What else is great? The deerhounds, looking gamely bewildered in the limelight. The storming lady saxophonists. The fact naughty Sir John Roverhead looks suspiciously like Tom Cruise. The histrionic overacting of Solomon Israel as a poor younger brother with no inheritance and a broken heart (and an overhelpful servant). The innocent delivery of the line "but what satisfaction can a woman give another woman?" during a duel. The perky maid Betty who assists our entry into Mrs Rich's world, and keeps the plot ticking along.
It's the RSC, so of course the production values are tiptop. A backdrop curtain misbehaved in the performance we saw, but the first we knew of it was the stage manager's apology. It was resolved before I had really noticed the problem. The website, when you look at Mrs Rich, flashes a little red warning at you that you're looking at "Non-Shakespeare plays"! Well, it may not be Shakespeare, but I think Mary Pix is an author greatly deserving this revival. Her female characters don't live in an easy world, but she's certainly given them the wits to get by in it.