A band strike up, playing leisurely and delicious Latino tunes; a lavishly attired dancer sashays and prances and prowls around the stage and among the audience; the wrought iron balconies and gates take us to an exotic locale; it’s all tantalisingly dark and sultry. The play’s not even begun and the Swan Theatre already feels like the best place to be in Britain on a wet November night.
It all sets the scene admirably for a wild and lavish spectacle, which is enjoyable for almost all its two hours and 35 minutes. The Rover is a show to savour.
It was written in 1677 by Aphra Behn, a woman credited by Virginia Woolf for “earning women the right to speak”. Ribald and rebellious, its representation of women as independent, intelligent and in possession of sexual appetites still feels refreshing, which is some indictment of the centuries of drama since.
The play tells of three Cavaliers who travel to warmer climes during carnival time in search of love and pleasure. But aside from Willmore, the Rover himself, it’s not really about the males: we have masked sisters in pursuit of men, and prostitutes seemingly in control of their lives and their clients and, in one case, a gun. There’s love, sex, jealousy, dance, colour, comedy, pathos and an overriding sense of liberation. It’s heady stuff.
Joseph Millson is tremendous as the Rover, part Brian Blessed, part Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart. He company could so easily prove tiresome, but it never does, so fine is Millson’s sense of timing and physical comedy, and so tangible his underlying sense of humanity. Alexander Gilbreath’s courtesan Angellica Bianca has a lusty dignity, while Faye Castelow’s Hellena – as integral to proceedings as the Rover – is bright, sharp and energetic.
The only misstep comes in the form and story of Blunt, played by Leander Deeny. What could be a fascinating study in the psychology of misogyny becomes aimless and irksome in the extreme. And if we must insist on finding stammers inherently amusing, it would help if they were acted well.
But that is not enough to mar significantly a production that brings a welcome escapism to these dark months. Director Loveday Ingram and his team are to congratulated for bringing out all the dynamism and vibrancy and power of the text. We can safely assume Aphra would approve.