When a troupe of actors wander the stage in civvies and modern-day attitudes before the lights dim and they switch into character, it's a commonplace enough theatrical device these days. When the cast of Stephen Jeffreys's period romp concerning the Second Earl of Rochester's stubborn flight into self-destruction top and tail Dominic Hill's production with such an approach, however, it becomes a device that matters.
Jeffreys's version of Rochester is, after all, a man who courted infamy like the most indulgent of rock stars, whose entire crash-and-burn lifestyle was a performance to die for. Unlike the coterie of preening fops, literary groupies and even Elizabeth Barry, the actress he fell for, however, he refused to play to type. Rochester's excesses were no act, but something that fuelled his soul, even as they killed him.
Hill's revival of Jeffreys's 20-year-old play casts Martin Hutson as an initially charming but increasingly crazed Rochester, whose opening speech to the audience sets a tone that flits between Blackadderish camp and something darker. When Gillian Saker's Barry first takes to the stage, the ensemble roar their way through the Citz's auditorium. By the time she's the talk of the town and Rochester is confined to a wheelchair, their vicious sparring may be in full view, but her crowd-pleasing antics can only be heard.
This is the only thing hidden in Tom Piper's open-plan design for a play that has a multitude of contradictions rubbing up against each other. Life and art, artifice and truth, attention-seeking and self-loathing, and the addictive allure of all of these are at the heart of a work that gives its subject the immortality he craved at last.