Directed from an ironing board in Ealing, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle Players presented John O’Keeffe’s 1791 comedy, Wild Oats.
Pre-warned that the plot was fiendishly complicated, we’d read up a little on the play, aided by scans of the programme for the very well-reviewed RSC production of Stratford (1976) and the Aldwych (1977). We were in the unique position of having the ASM of that production to play Lady Amaranth in ours. Her previous credits include Corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace (Theatre Royal Windsor).
Immediately the play showed itself to contain more gags than The Clandestine Marriage with a scene between Sir George Thunder and his former boatswain, John Dory, a man named after a fish. Both speak in naval slang, complaining that having arrived at Lady Amaranth’s, they have not been offered refreshments. Unaware that the new owner is a lady and a Quaker to boot, Dory hopes ‘the governor of this here fort’ can ‘victual us a few’. Sir George, meanwhile, needs a drink, having ridden ‘at the rate of ten knots an hour, over fallow and stubble’ and being ‘as dry as a powder match’. They drop some pretty clear expositional points, telling the audience that Sir George had years before sown his wild oats by since tricking a young woman, Miss Amelia, into marriage, posing as Captain Seymour and employing a fake clergyman, before setting off to sea. He had subsequently been forced into marriage in his turn, his father insisting he marry an heiress.
Lady Amaranth, it turns out, can only keep her fortune if she acts in a Quaker manner – dropping her title and answering to ‘Mary’. There’s a man whose job is to make sure she behaves, the suitably entitled Ephraim Smooth who lards his conversations with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. Thunder takes against him and his ‘sanctified poop’ and decides his son should marry Lady Amaranth. Just as he decides this, he is told his son has run away from Portsmouth with an acting troupe.
In the next scene we meet his son, Harry Thunder, who is disguising his true identity from all but his servant Muz. To the others he is Dick Buskin. But he admits his ‘rage for a little action’ has worn off and he plans to return to ‘the gay old fellow’ his father. He is joined by Rover, a motor-mouthed actor who has ‘an abominable habit of quotation’, who describes young Thunder as like his ‘own brother, had I one’ (see where this is going yet?). They part ways and Rover finds himself alone, little knowing that Harry has put a wodge of money into his pocket.
Now we meet a farmer called Gammon – his is in fact very much what even today people today would call a gammon – red-faced and small-minded. He is about to evict a good man called Banks but along comes Rover with an accidental fistful of money. Enter Lady Amaranth who admires the generosity of this young stranger.
At the same moment, Rover falls in love with her, but little suspects he has a chance of successfully winning her. His habit of proclaiming ‘I am the bold Thunder’, a line from The Rehearsal, means he is mistaken by John Dory for Sir George Thunder’s missing son … shenanigans will ensue in the next instalment.
One of the issues that quickly became apparent as we read is that there are apparently several editions of Wild Oats, with some quite substantial textual variants. There were frequent substitutions of one word for another: ‘here’s a fine body’ was rendered elsewhere as ‘here’s a fine lady’; ‘beat’ is substituted for ‘licked’. But the real chaos came – amidst much laughter – to long chunks of text being cut – or appearing in another place.
So far the characters we have met are great fun. Ephraim Smooth is wonderfully pious and oil; Gammon is a really nasty, blaming his thoroughly decent children, Jane and Sim, for whatever they do; the sailors are bumptious and Rover seems to treat life as a play and is a shade away from realizing he is in one. Like the characters in so many eighteenth-century novels and plays we’re read, the characters seem to run around the landscape, bumping into each other in various combinations with different effects.
There’s an energy and joy in this play so far and everything is set up for a lot of fun in the scenes to come.