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The Rivals

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Maggie Tagney as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals at Keswick Credit: Richard Pattison

A lightness of touch, both by director Ian Forrest and stage designer Martin Johns, turn a familiar theatrical party piece into a collector’s item.

Instead of treating Sheridan’s near 250-year-old comedy masterpiece with the reverence of a museum piece, they cast a fresh light on both the characters and their 18th century Bath backdrop to create a crazy and colourful revival.

The between-scenes silent cameos capture the style of Gillray’s contemporary cartoons, and movement director Ella Vale adds detailed physical flourishes wherever necessary. The first view of Johns’s five-door stage set suggests a free-flowing farce, but as one door closes here another revolves into a subtle scene change.

Sheridan’s first play closely followed the stricture to write about what you know. So his own elopement, duels and satirist’s eye for the city were all bundled into a comedy of manners that still tends to set the standard for that genre.

Here are characters with cartoon names perhaps, but with all the fully-drawn foibles of fallible human beings. These are capricious folk whose moods, emotions and loyalties are as changeable as the British weather.

Lydia Languish loves Ensign Beverley, or is it Captain Absolute? Meanwhile Sir Lucius O’Trigger thinks he’s courting Lydia, but it’s actually her aunt, Mrs Malaprop. She, in turn, loves the English language like a “queen of the dictionary”, but can’t help murdering it every time she opens her mouth...

It’s a role that gave the language a new word, besides a character lapped up by every actress since. Maggie Tagney is the latest to revel in it.

Like all the cast here, she lends a strong physical presence that is emphasised against the whitened stage backdrop. Kieran Buckeridge is an angular Absolute, with unforced comic ability, Thomas Richardson makes an Eeyore-ish ass out of Faulkland and Laura Darrell, a wide-eyed Lydia.

Alex Phelps plays his country bumpkin, Acres, direct to the audience and earns an enthusiastic response right back.

But then there really isn’t anything out of place in a wild and thoroughly enjoyable three hours of fun. Like all six plays in this rotating season, it runs until November.

Reviewer: David Upton