Masks and Faces review – A comedy of infidelity … starring Michael Billington

Victor Kiam liked his shavers so much he bought the company, Remington. The Guardian former chief theatre critic Michael Billington liked Masks and Faces so much he ended up in it.

During his five-decade stint at the Guardian, the critic praised this 1852 comedy by Charles Reade and Tom Taylor in a “surprising revival” at London’s Finborough theatre. “I particularly liked the two critics, Snarl and Soaper,” he wrote, little knowing he’d one day land the part of Snarl opposite fellow critic Fiona Mountford as Soaper in a remotely recorded YouTube reading.

“Snarl is the only ill-natured one,” says Quin, played by Robyn Holdaway, which suggests the genial Billington has not been typecast in every respect. With Mountford, who has a whale of a time as the eager-to-please Soaper, he matches the fruitiness of Matthew Iliffe’s production. The director overrides the muted conventions of screen drama to let the actors do their theatrical worst – or at least, the worst they can do sitting alone in their bedrooms.

Snarl and Soaper are minor players in a backstage comedy of infidelity in which Will Kerr’s Ernest Vane falls, as everyone does, for Amy McAllister’s Peg Woffington, a leading light of the stage.

McAllister gives a witty performance as a woman who refuses to be treated as a plaything. She has a hard-earned wisdom that an unguarded Sophie Melville, as the wronged wife Mabel Vane, initially lacks. Amusingly, it is Matthew Ashforde’s Triplet, a pathetically overlooked playwright, who turns out to be the play’s moral heart.

For all the in-jokes and the improbable happy ending, it’s breezy fun. As for the two ingenues, I won’t comment on their future stage careers, but I will say Mountford beats Billington at the singing.

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