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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Lady of Little Sense

"The sun of gold shines much brighter than the sun of intelligence. " — Laurence
A Lady of Little Sense
Frances McNamee as Finea and Jim Bywater as Miseno (Photo: Jane Hobson)
This third play in the Arcola/Ustinov Studio Bath/ Belgrade Theatre Coventry production is a delightful comedy, a turn of the seventeenth century rom com. A Lady of Little Sense had me drawing parallels with Shakespeare's comedies.

When Leandro (Doug Rao) describes the two daughters of Octavio (William Hoyland) "one a rose, the other a thorn," we are instantly reminded of Padua and the beautiful Bianca and her shrewish sister Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. Liseo (Simon Scardifield) has agreed to marry the stupid Finea (Frances McNamee), the thorn described above and not her intelligent and studious sister Nise (Katie Lightfoot). "I'm about to marry a cracked cup," he says woefully.

We first meet Finea when a tutor is trying to teach her, her alphabet. Finea has wild hair and a wild dress and when she fails to recognise the letter B, the tutor hits her with a heavy ruler. She retaliates by hitting his head and almost strangling him with a cord.

Three slick suitors arrive to court Nise. Feniso (Doug Rao), Duardo (Chris Andrew Mellon) and Laurencio (Nick Barber). Dressed in the height of early seventeenth century fashion, they start to make flowery speeches and I am reminded of Portia's suitors in The Merchant of Venice. Laurencio hears that Finea has four times the amount of dowry of her bookish sister Nise. "The sun of gold shines much brighter than the sun of intelligence," says Laurencio, in this neat translation by David Johnston, as he switches sisters. The strength of the two plays I have seen at the Arcola is in the new adaptations which are lively and fresh.

The suitors use excessive flourishes, and Laurencio manages to walk across the floor while on his knees, very comically. The demented Finea does an impression of a squirrel. A dance master (Jim Bywater) with orange ribboned ballet pumps struts and poses trying to teach Finea while Nise is an attentive pupil. Although she is unruly and unpredictable, my heart warmed to Finea because she is so funny and her sister Nise is rather priggish. Laurencio sums up the conflict between learning and romance, "Science describes but Love dreams" he says.

In the Second Act, Finea appears with her hair tied back, neatly groomed and while a sunglass spectacled choir sing from the balcony, Nise and Finea with stamping feet and swirling skirts dance a flamenco style thrilling piece. The dithering Liseo first tries to get out of his betrothal contract with Finea and then changes his mind but Laurencio pursues Finea although he preferred the untutored Finea of the first act.

The design works well with some period chairs and a black shiny floor and damask curtains. Many of the cast double expertly as servants with heart stopping costume changes.

Each change of scene is stylishly effected by maids in symmetry giving a pretty flourish to these necessities. I loved this light hearted comedy with tip top performances especially from Frances McNamee as the interestingly chaotic and spirited Finea and Nick Barber with his little pointed chin beard as her suitor. Katie Lightfoot's Nise is disdainful with a head full of learning and her conversations brimming with one-upmanship.

This charming show closes with a period dance from the whole cast. Well worth the trip to Dalston Junction.

Here is my note from an earlier Lope de Vega review on the playwright's career: Lope de Vega (1562 - 1635) was a prolific Spanish playwright with a fascinating life which itself would make an epic novel. Born into a family of craftsmen but orphaned at an early age, he went to university, was secretary to the Dukes of Alba and Sessa and sailed with the Spanish Armada against England in 1588. According to sources, Lope was a poet, a keen gardener, the husband of two wives and the father of from six to fourteen children. He later joined the priesthood and the Inquisition. He wrote over 900 (1800 in another version) plays, 400 of which are still in existence. When he died, his state funeral lasted nine days. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Many of Lope's themes were picked up by his countryman, Calderon de la Barca (born 1600), who in turn was inspired later French playwrights. Both Calderon and Lope were rediscovered by the German Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. The current programme tells us that he remained in the priesthood for just two years as he couldn't sustain the requirement for celibacy.

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A Lady of Little Sense
Written by Lope de Vega
Translated by David Johnston
Directed by Laurence Boswell

With: Chris Andrew Mellon, Jim Bywater, William Hoyland, Hedydd Dylan, Nick Barber, Simon Scardifield, Frances McNamee, Annie Hemingway, Doug Rao, Katie Lightfoot
Designed by Mark Bailey
Composer and Sound: Jon Nicholls
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Movement: Lucy Cullingford
A joint production between the Ustinov Studio Theatre Royal Bath, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and the Arcola.
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking to 14th March 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd January 2014 performance at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL(Overground: Dalston Junction)

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