The Busybody

McElligott Theatre (Villanova Players)


Susanna Centlivre’s life reads like one of her plays. Hopelessly romanticised by her early biographers, she was born more than 300 years ago, apparently into an exiled well-to-do family. Orphaned early and subsequently mistreated by an elderly relative, she ran away from home at 14 dressed as a boy. Then she joined an acting troupe where she was welcomed as she had an uncommon talent for “breeches roles”. Taking her cross-dressing career further she was smuggled into Cambridge and there managed to receive a good education. Queen Anne’s cook fell in love with her after seeing her strut her stuff, and they eventually married, the first or perhaps second of her three marriages, some of which may have ended stickily.

Throughout her fantastic life Susanna Centlivre wrote tremendously popular comic plays, many of which continued to be adored over the course of the next hundred years. Her heroines, strong and sensible, are fully prepared to use any means to ensure they achieve economic independence and love (something of a radical position in those days, and in fact Susanna’s Whig sensibilities are a central theme throughout her plays).

The Busybody is a prime example of her work. Set among the wigged-and-powdered English nobility, the play deals with two couples who are desperately in love, but whose elders want to keep them apart. Our young nobles (of both genders) also want the inheritance that’s owing to them, but that’s not immediately forthcoming either. Servants conspire with their masters and mistresses through whispered messages, notes, confabulation and intrigue the plot thickens! Then add to the recipe a marvellous seasoning: Our “Busybody”, in the form of a well-meaning, not very bright and yet incredibly nosy fop who ruins everything he touches.

Of historic interest is the fact that The Busybody was one of the first plays to be performed in the Australian colonies by a company of convicts at Sydney Cove in 1796.

Villanova Players’ online “brag sheet” correctly states that with their new adaptation of The Busybody they have been fairly liberal in their “pruning” of the script. They cite 18th century overblown language and long running-time as their excuses. However, in the aid of wanting ‘‘to make it more understandable to modern audiences’’, the adaptors seem to have removed a lot of what makes the characters and the action three-dimensional. The considerable liberties taken even give the final half a significantly different ‘‘feel’’ to the first half, extending to style of language in many cases.

This reviewer is left with several unanswered questions: Why has the “lowest common denominator” hatchet been used in this adaptation? Do the directors feel unequal to the task of directing something more complex, or do they not trust their audience to understand the subtleties of social and political satire? Why didn’t the actors ask for more substantial characters to play with? And why has the character of Lord Jealous Traffic undergone gender reassignment for this version? (so much for Oedipal conflict…)

This adaptation is not a good introduction to Susanna Centlivre, or indeed Restoration-Sentimentalist comedy in general. This being said, there are definite sparks of fun in this rendition, particularly after interval when the intrigue reaches fever pitch. Coded notes are passed around, swords are waved, ladies go into faints, impersonations occur, and there is some absolutely hilarious bad singing.

Maria Becquigny plays Miranda, one half of the “rakish” couple in this show, and one of Susanna Centlivre’s strong heroines. Of the young lovers, she offers the most interesting character (and, to be fair, is given the most opportunity to do so). She strikes a good balance between her two sides the cunning heiress, manipulating her “Guardie” (solidly played by David Jones) into handing over her fortune, and the young lady obviously besotted by the dashing Sir George Airy (Damian Mead).

Luke Monsour is amusingly foppy as the hapless busybody Marplot (“Egad!!”), and his character develops nicely. This is obviously the play’s plum role, with much opportunity for fun, and Monsour does it justice. His physical mannerisms through the many phases of eavesdropping, incorrect surmising, apologising and finally (memorably) happy dancing are a joy to watch.

There are impressive performances from among the supporting cast. Most notably the interaction between the plotting servants, Fran Campbell’s Patch and Michael Byrnes’ Whisper, is excellent and we look forward to seeing them in future roles. Emma Powell as Scentwell is another little-seen gem.

On the other hand, some acting lacks commitment. Many contemporary actors are unused to the convention of “asides to the audience” as a comedic device, and some of the transitions between the action and audience commentary are unclear and a little rushed. On Saturday night there were also times when the (perhaps less experienced) actors broke out of character when the focus wasn’t “on” them, or when slightly unexpected situations occurred onstage.

But the costumes are fabulous (one highlight being Marplot’s sumptuous aquamarine breeches!) and the wigs and hairdressing are superlative. Costume and hair designers will be scrambling to take a look at this show, and possibly steal hints from the masterful Leo Bradley (costumes) and Philippe (hair). The sets and props are nicely specific, and someone has created excellent little touches front-of-house with fruit refreshment on arrival, an interesting program to peruse and late baroque music before the show and during interval.

With its farcical elements and cunning plots, this adaptation of The Busybody is worth seeing for a quick laugh, but is not for those with an historical interest in authentic Restoration-Sentimentalist comedy, and is probably not for most Centlivre fans.

— Ruth Bridgstock
(Performance seen: Fri 4th July 2003)