The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret!
By Susanna Centlivre.
White Bear Theatre, London, UK
31st October-26th November 2006

I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing my first play in the White Bear, a friendly pub-cum-theatre located some five minutes walk from Kennington tube in South London.

Tonight the White Bear hosted ‘The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret!’ a romantic farce set in Lisbon and written by Susanna Centlivre, an eighteenth century J.K. Rowling who turned to scriptwriting following the death of her second husband.

The play started off slowly - perhaps it was a matter of attuning myself to the eighteenth century prose, or maybe it was the dullness of the two characters who opened the play - Frederick, a nondescript gentleman with impeccable manners and Don Lopez, an intense fifty something keen to marry his daughter Isabella to a wealthy buffoon.

There was a palpable shift in gears with the introduction of chivalrous womaniser ‘Colonel Britton’, who lodging with Frederick, waxed lyrical about his desire to taste one or two Portuguese delicacies. Unfortunately Adrian Metcalfe, who played Colonel Britton, had too much of the parish vicar about him to carry off a master class eighteenth century James Bond. Nevertheless his sophisticated innuendo caused mirth amongst the audience.

It wasn’t long before the stage was awash with fresh young women and strapping young men, aristocrats and servants alike, whose comings and goings comprised the meat of this play. The story line revolves around Isabella, who beset by the woe caused by her father’s plans, decides to escape and hitch up with Colonel Britton. To do this she enlists the help of her friend Violante at whose house she hides.

Things are complicated because Violante is having a secret relationship with Isabella's brother Don Felix. The two are hopelessly in love, and are constantly trading grandiose expressions of affection. However Violante is sworn to secrecy by Isabella, a secrecy which begins to frustrate and raise suspicions in Don Felix. As the play develops so their interactions become embittered.

Whilst the presence of so many young things provoked a heightened sense of hormone fuelled alertness in the audience, the real inspiration of this play was the comic synergy, which went far beyond what had been provided by Centlivre’s script. Jessica Ransom, who played the maid to Violante, had a northern accent and mannerism which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Victoria Wood comedy and was exceptional. Her quick wittedness, gestures and delivery served to turn any dialogue she engaged in, into a gem. I’d pay just to watch her.

The play was also illuminated by the sophisticated and beautifully expressive dialogues penned by Centlivre. Whilst it was difficult to get my head around them at first, I ended up becoming a Centlivre junky, highly addicted to unravelling and exploring each verbose line.

The play was hijacked right at the end with some feminist oration delivered through the lips of Violante – which did seem out of place – but by the end you could tell everyone had had a really good laugh – which is after all what this play is about.

Mike Williams