Vanbrugh is assumed to have attempted to tailor his play to the talents of particular actors and to what audiences would expect from them, as was normal practice (Holland), but this was exceptionally difficult to accomplish in 1695–96. Love's Last Shift had been cast from the remnants of the Patent Company—"learners" and "boys and girls"—after the walkout of the stars. Following the surprising success of this young cast, Vanbrugh and Rich had even greater difficulty in retaining the actors needed for The Relapse. However, in spite of the continuous emergency in which the Relapse production was mounted, most of Vanbrugh's original intentions were eventually carried out.
Love's Last Shift cast
To cast Love's Last Shift in January 1696, the Patent Company had to make the best use of such actors as remained after the 1694 split (see cast list right). An anonymous contemporary pamphlet describes the "despicable condition" the troupe had been reduced to:
The disproportion was so great at parting, that it was almost impossible, in Drury Lane, to muster up a sufficient number to take in all the parts of any play; and of them so few were tolerable, that a play must of necessity be damned, that had not extraordinary favour from the audience. No fewer than sixteen (most of the old standing) went away; and with them the very beauty and vigour of the stage; they who were left being for the most part learners, boys and girls, a very unequal match for them that revolted.
The only well-regarded performers available were the Verbruggens, John and Susanna, who had been re-seduced by Rich from Betterton's company. They were of course used in Love's Last Shift, with John playing Loveless, the male lead, and his wife Susanna the flirtatious heiress Narcissa, a secondary character. The rest of the cast consisted of the new and untried (for instance Hildebrand Horden, who had just joined Rich's troupe, playing a rakish young lover), the modest and lacklustre (Jane Rogers, playing Amanda, and Mary Kent, playing Sir Novelty's mistress Flareit), and the widely disliked (the opportunist Colley Cibber, playing Sir Novelty Fashion); people who had probably never been given the option of joining Betterton. Betterton's only rival as male lead, George Powell, had most likely been left behind by the rebels with some relief (Milhous); while Powell was skilled and experienced, he was also notorious for his bad temper and alcoholism. Throughout the "seduction" tug-of-war between Rich and Betterton in 1695–96, Powell remained at Drury Lane, where he was in fact not used for Love's Last Shift, but would instead spectacularly demonstrate his drinking problem at the première of The Relapse.
The Relapse cast
Vanbrugh planned The Relapse, too, round these limited casting resources and minor talents, which Peter Holland has argued explains the robust, farcical character of the play; Vanbrugh's second comedy, The Provoked Wife (1697), written for the better actors of the cooperative company, is a much subtler piece. The Relapse was written in six weeks and offered to the Patent Company in March, but because of the problems with contracting and retaining actors, it did not première until November. It is known from Cibber's autobiography that Vanbrugh had a decisive say in the ongoing casting changes made during these seven months; it is not known whether he altered his text to accommodate them.
To reinforce the connection with Love's Last Shift and capitalise on its unexpected success, Vanbrugh designed the central roles of Loveless, Amanda, and Sir Novelty for the same actors: John Verbruggen, Jane Rogers, and Colley Cibber. Keeping Rogers as Amanda was not a problem, since she was not an actress that the companies fought over, but holding on to John Verbruggen and Colley Cibber posed challenges, to which Rich rose with energetic campaigns of bribery and re-seduction. Filling the rest of the large Relapse cast presented a varied palette of problems, which forced some unconventional emergency casting.
John Verbruggen was one of the original rebels and had been offered a share in the actors' company, but became disgruntled when his wife Susanna, a popular comedienne, was not. For Rich, it was a stroke of luck to get Susanna and John back into his depleted and unskilled troupe. John's availability to play Loveless remained precarious, however. In September, when The Relapse had still not been staged after six months of trying (probably because Rich was still parleying with Cibber about his availability as Lord Foppington), John was still complaining about his employment situation, even getting into a physical fight over it at the theatre. This misbehaviour caused the Lord Chamberlain to declare his contract void and at the same time order him to stay with the Patent Company until January 1697, to give Rich time to find a replacement. The original Loveless was thus finally guaranteed for an autumn season run of The Relapse. Since the loyal Verbruggen couple always moved as a unit, Susanna's services were also assured.
The Verbruggens were essential to the play, not least because Vanbrugh had customised the sprightly temptress Berinthia to Susanna's talents and reputation for witty, roguish, sexually enterprising characters, most recently Mrs Buxom in Thomas D'Urfey's Don Quixote (a success thanks to "the extraordinary well acting of Mrs Verbruggen", wrote D'Urfey). Although John was less well known, his acting skills were considerable and would flourish after January 1697 in the cooperative company, where commentators even started to compare him with the great Betterton. Verbruggen was considered a more natural, intuitive or "careless" actor, with "a negligent agreeable wildness in his action and his mien, which became him well." Anthony Aston vividly described Verbruggen as "a little in-kneed, which gave him a shambling gait, which was a carelessness, and became him." Modern critics do not find the Loveless part very lively or irresistible, but Vanbrugh was able to count on Verbruggen's shambling male magnetism and "agreeable wildness" to enrich the character. This would originally have worked even in print, since cast lists were included in the published plays: most 1690s play readers were playgoers also, and aware of the high-profile Verbruggens. Happily married in private life and playing the secret lovers Loveless and Berinthia, the Verbruggens have left traces of their charisma and erotic stage presences in Vanbrugh's dialogue. The Relapse even alludes to their real-life relationship, in meta-jokes such as Berinthia's exclamation, "Well, he is a charming man! I don't wonder his wife's so fond of him!"
Hildebrand Horden, who had played a "wild" young lover in Love's Last Shift, was the only young, handsome, potential romantic lead Rich had. He was presumably cast by Vanbrugh as Tom Fashion, Lord Foppington's clever younger brother (Holland), and it was a blow to the Patent Company when he was killed in a tavern brawl (more glamorously referred to as a "duel" in older sources) in May. At the première in November, Tom Fashion was instead played as a breeches role by Mary Kent, an unusual piece of emergency casting that puts a different face on a uniquely frank homosexual scene where Tom keeps skipping nimbly out of the way of the matchmaker Coupler's lecherous groping.
Colley Cibber was a rather unsuccessful young actor at the time of the split, with a squeaky voice and without any of the physical attractiveness of the soon-to-be-dead Horden. After the success of Love's Last Shift, his status was transformed, with both companies vying for his services as actor and playwright. He made an off-season transfer to Betterton's company in the summer of 1696 and wrote part of a play for the rebels before being re-seduced by Rich by means of a fat contract (Milhous). Cibber as Lord Foppington was thus also assured, and finally the première of The Relapse could be scheduled with some confidence. Cibber's performance in it was received with even greater acclaim than in his own play, Vanbrugh's Lord Foppington being a larger and, in the estimation of both contemporaries and modern critics, much funnier part than Sir Novelty Fashion. Vanbrugh's play incorporates some of the ad-libbing and affectations of Cibber's by all accounts inspired performance in Love's Last Shift. Cibber has thus imprinted not only his own playwriting but also his acting style and squeaky personality on Vanbrugh's best-known character.
Vanbrugh's preface to the first edition preserves a single fleeting concrete detail about the première performance: George Powell was drunk. He played Amanda's worldly and sophisticated admirer Worthy, the "fine gentleman of the play", and apparently brought an unintended hands-on realism to his supposedly suave seduction attempt:
One word more about the bawdy, and I have done. I own the first night this thing was acted, some indecencies had like to have happened, but it was not my fault. The fine gentleman of the play, drinking his mistress's health in Nantes brandy from six in the morning to the time he waddled upon the stage in the evening, had toasted himself up to such a pitch of vigour, I confess I once gave Amanda for gone.