About half of Virtue in Danger is very good; unfortunately it is the half that Paul Dehn and James Bernard, the devisers of the entertainment in its present form, had nothing to do with. Actually the whole idea of turning Vanbrugh's The Relapse into a cosy little musical is faintly mystifying, except for the obvious hope on the part of the Mermaid's management that such a work would automatically repeat the popular success of Lock Up Your Daughters. This for all I know it may do - the formula is not exactly demanding - but in this case the success will be considerably less well deserved, for the simple reason that the imported elements are so evidently inferior, the original which is being tinkered with is so evidently superior, and the two sides of the show fit so much more awkwardly together.
Of course this sort of thing can only fairly be judged without rigid preconceptions about what is and what isn't permissible. There is no need, for example, to get too worked up about desecration of a classic: The Relapse is a classic of our comedy, but as written it is a ramshackle, almost unplayable classic. Its length is forbidding (uncut it would probably run for nearly four hours) and its two plots have only the slightest, most formal links, mainly in the brief incursions of Lord Foppington, the principal character of the farcical plot, into the romantic comedy of Loveless, Amanda, Berinthia and Worthy.
Sheridan rewrote it in more genteel terms as A Trip to Scarborough in 1777; later revivals cut out the romantic plot altogether and concentrated on the broad but altogether less shocking and cynical farce. By such standards Paul Dehn's adaptation, which keeps at least the outlines of both plots and does not indulge in any of the obvious bowdlerisations, has quite a bit to commend it.
No, where the objections come in this case are not so much on principle as on the precise way it all works out in practice. Given that to fit in with the Mermaid's twice-nightly policy the play has anyway to be cut by about half, to a bare two hours with interval, it seems on the face of it wanton to truncate it still further in order to fit in songs. Mr Dehn offers some attempted justification in his programme-note by suggesting that in this way he can work in more of the plot more succinctly, using songs to forward the plot and at the same time create mood and atmosphere. This would be all very well if it were true, but alas it is not. Occasionally something happens during a song (the arrival of Lord Foppington at Sir Tunbelly Clumsy's country house; the final and to all appearances quite arbitrary reconciliation of Loveless and his wife) but more often than not they are simply interruptions in the action, taking a single line from the original dialogue - 'Fortune, thou art a bitch', 'Stand back old Sodom', 'Hoyden hath charms' - and elaborating it for three or four minutes before the plot can take up where it left off.
Worse, the songs themselves do nothing to reconcile one to these intrusions. James Bernard is content, for the most part, merely to cover the words with painfully banal, four-square melodies which never take wings on their own and tend to stress Mr Dehn's great weakness as a lyric-writer, a lack of fluency in rhyming, by coming down plonk on every rhyme-word. To be fair, there is one exception to this, 'Wait a Little Longer, Lover', which suggests how the show might have worked as a musical, but it is only a short-lived hint in an otherwise barren waste.
What are we left with, then? Well, quite a bit, as a matter of fact. Although Wendy Toye's production, full of the simpering, posturing and sniggering which usually stand in for style and sophistication in Restoration revivals, does all it can to obscure things, the cast is excellent, and whenever it is allowed to captures admirably the true Vanbrugh flavour. Outstanding in all departments - she even makes something of her songs - is Patricia Routledge as Berinthia, the merry widow in search of diversion; she is one of our most stylish comediennes, up to now shamefully under-used, and it really is time she was allowed a stab at one of the classical comedy roles - what a Lady Bracknell she will one day make! Equally good are Patsy Byrne, the perfect Miss Hoyden, even to the touch of genuine feeling which humanises the farce, and John Moffatt, giving the performance of his career as Lord Foppington. In lesser roles Gwen Nelson as Hoyden's Nurse and Richard Wordsworth as the omni-lecherous marriage broker Coupler are brilliant comic creations, and practically everyone else does what he or she can with the vestiges of roles left to them.
In fact, this could be a first-rate revival if it weren't for that wretched music. I suppose it is too much to hope that if - or when - the show transfers to the West End its devisers will use the additional running time to put back more of the play and drop the songs, though that would be the ideal solution. So instead let us hope that when the National Theatre gets round to Restoration comedy its directors will remember the talents revealed by this production and allow them to be exercised in a worthier setting.
John Russell Taylor
Plays and Players, June 1963.
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