In Mike Bartlett’s rambunctious, modern-day Restoration comedy, there are scripted instructions that “everything should be joyful and fun”. Under the direction of Rachel O’Riordan, Scandaltown is a springtime pantomime of sorts, in which the classic features of 17th and 18th-century restoration dramas are re-spun with knowing humour, smut, silliness and arch references to the hypocrisies of the state, although the political satire in itself isn’t sharp enough to sting.
There is much delight in the spoofing of its genre: the typically revealing names, from Matt Eton (Richard Goulding), a repressed Etonian and Tory politician, to the conspicuously marginal character, Freddie Peripheral (Luke Hornsby). The classic restoration drama traits are all entertainingly over-egged, from disguises and comic asides to period language (whence, thereof, t’was), and the obligatory showdown when secret paternities are revealed and grudges unburdened.
In its best moments it has the look of an expensively produced Monty Python sketch with pastiche that really is joyous. But it gets baggier as it goes on and by the end begins to resemble a flabby ITV comedy with rather too predictable jokes on Tory politicians, their partying and policies over the pandemic. Eton, the secretary of state for procurement with a Daily Mail columnist wife (Emma Cunniffe), has a heavy-handed, albeit amusing, resemblance to a prominent Conservative politician.
The topical satire jibes at privileged media types, too, but the snarkiest broadsides are reserved for the millennial generation, which here spouts sanctimonious statements on climate change and capitalism. One among them is Jack Virtue (Matthew Broome), who turns against fellow millennials and their “tyranny of virtue” to become something of a Byronic rake.
Just as in Bartlett’s Love Love Love, the generations are in battle; those who grew up in the 1990s are dismissed by younger characters as the “disgusting generation” of selfish, greedy porn lovers. The older lot, in turn, pillory them for their exhibitionist virtue signalling, Twitter activism and veganism.
Rachael Stirling as Lady Susan Climber first appears on stage draped across a chaise longue in a fabulous basque and gold suit (Kinnetia Isidore’s wardrobe is uniformly phenomenal along with Good Teeth’s opulent set), her butler swiping her dating app for her. She is sparky in her central part, alongside a cast that is brilliant across the board.
However, the pace and wit sag after the interval, the final revelations are not dynamic enough and the mystery around an offensive outfit worn by Lady Climber has no payoff. In its story it contains shades of Henry Fielding’s Bildungsroman, Tom Jones, which was recently adapted into the musical What’s New Pussycat? but that show was far more effective in its comic revelations, twists and pacing.
Still, there is fun and fine acting along the way and as Bartlett instructs, it is all joyfully silly stuff.
• At Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 14 May.