The Rivals

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
A Theatre Royal Bath Production
Festival Theatre, Chichester, and touring

The Rivals publicity photo

Sheridan’s The Rivals was a flop when first performed in 1775 (could it be mere coincidence that he wrote The Critic a few years later?) but, revised and shortened, it became a classic, the comedy of manners that we know today and a true masterpiece of intricate relationships. He wrote with wit, humour, and an intimate knowledge of the subject, having himself eloped with the young, celebrated singer Elizabeth Linley, the intention being to take her to a convent in France to avoid the attentions of her unwanted suitor, but he managed to accidentally marry her on the way. The affair caused a tremendous scandal and Sheridan fought two duels in her honour, all of which are incorporated into the play.

While not, strictly speaking, a farce, the situation presented is farcical and there are enough doors in Simon Higlett’s beautiful Bath Crescent set and enough expertly timed entrances, exits, near misses and mistaken identity to qualify, but Peter Hall lets the dialogue speak for itself and only resorts to slightly more visual comedy in act two and this mostly by expressions and mannerisms. The characters quite often address the audience directly with Garard Murphy’s Sir Lucius O’Trigger asking in bewilderment, “Who the devil is he talking to?” when he finds Jack alone on the stage.

Robyn Addison, making her professional debut, is a beautiful and sentimentally romantic Lydia Languish planning to elope with an impoverished Ensign Beverley, avoiding the husband chosen for her by her aunt. “How charming will poverty be with him,” she says - silly girl. “Elopement would be such paragraphs in the papers”, and many a vapidly bored ‘Heigh-ho!” emphasises the emptiness of her life. Unbeknown to her the chosen Captain Jack Absolute is the same man, playing a part to please her, and Tam Williams takes to the role of Beverley/Jack with a youthful charm, beautifully capturing the spirit and bewilderment of a man caught between two characters, but happier with a little action. “This is better than being in love - there’s some spirit in this.”

A second love story depicts an insanely jealous Faulkland (Tony Gardner) constantly testing the love of Lydia’s cousin, his adored Julia (Annabel Scholey), and recent graduate Carlyss Peer as the maid Lucy, is pert, flirtatious and mischievous as she incessantly pops in and out delivering letters to the wrong person.

Superb performances by the whole cast, but the stars are undoubtedly Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, united again for the first time since the popular television series To The Manor Born. Keith plays the iconic Mrs. Malaprop with an elegant dignity, pronouncing her words with impeccable enunciation “misapplied without being mispronounced”. This is no clown-like figure of fun, despite using all the wrong words, but an intelligent and sensitive woman who is hurt and indignant at being described as “a weather-beaten old she-dragon”, and her distress when rejected by Sir Lucius was tangible. I could have cried, despite the fact that when the two faced each other, horrified that they were not as expected from the letters, it reminded me very much of internet dating.

Bowles is a very stiff and correct Sir Anthony Absolute, expecting total obedience from his son - “Take care. Don’t put me in a frenzy” - but his fun-loving side shines through and pauses before the ‘frenzy’ breaks out give the light and shade which adds to the comedy.

The production is played at a cracking pace, with liveried servants changing the scenes from outside to in in the blink of an eye. Two and three quarter hours long and not a moment is wasted. Wordy but superbly comical - a true gem!

Opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 23rd November - previews from 10th.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Haymarket

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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