Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Compass Theatre Company
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and touring
Following their powerful and touching Winter's Tale last year, Sheffield-based Compass are now touring with a wonderfully entertaining production of Sheridan's comedy. The Rivals is set in Georgian Bath, and was inspired both by the social milieu of that city, and by events in Sheridan's life.
Lydia Languish, prompted by her excessive indulgence in romantic fiction, has decided that certain ingredients are essential for her happiness in love: a poor but dashing suitor, elopement and disinheritance. Aware of this, wealthy Jack Absolute, in order to win Lydia's affection, woos her in the guise of Ensign Beverley, the impecunious but dashing young man of her dreams.
Meanwhile, his friend Bob Acres, unaware of Jack's scheme, is also hoping to woo Lydia, by disguising his country squire's countenance in extravagant gentlemanly attire; and one Sir Lucius O'Trigger has embarked on an epistolary courtship, believing that his passionate correspondant 'Delia' is Lydia, when in fact it is the girl's widowed aunt, Mrs Malaprop.
Jack's friend Faulkland is also in love, with Lydia's friend Julia. Julia loves him steadfastly in return, but Faulkland's irrational doubts, insecurities and suspicions turn love's smooth course into an emotional quagmire. If all this isn't confusion enough, Lydia's maid Lucy is supplementing her servant's wage as a paid go-between for all parties, delivering their letters - or not - as suits her financial purposes.
The added complication of Jack's father Sir Antony arriving in Bath, to insist on an arranged marriage for his son, promises to scupper Jack's plans until Sir Antony reveals that the girl in question is none other than Lydia. But Jack's attempt to play this to his advantage only makes matters worse, and in the end Jack, like the playwright himself, is forced to fight a duel for the woman he loves.
The multifarious misunderstandings on stage are further elaborated in the extraordinary verbiage of Mrs Malaprop, in which role Carol Macready stands out in an excellent ensemble as 'the very pineapple of perfection'. Danielle King is an effervescent and dippy Lydia, and the loyal, sensible Julia is played with charming intensity by Victoria Woodward. The chaps are splendid, too, and if Richard Stacey's Jack is sometimes less than dashing, his dad Sir Antony is performed with blustering relish by Robert Austin, who elicits spontaneous applause for a virtuoso rant in the first half.
What lifts this daft comedy above mere farce is the wit and subtlety of Sheridan's text, giving his characters some cleverly wrought, and often syntactically complex, things to say. To Compass' credit, their clarity, timing and emphasis are nearly always spot-on, and enable the audience to navigate the eighteenth century language and the intricacies of the plot, with relative ease and great enjoyment.
The production is visually enjoyable, too, with everyone decked out in the colourful paraphernalia of the period. Liam Doona's simple and elegant set constructs an acting space on polished boards between two prosceniums - a plain modern one to the fore and a neo-classical one behind, apparently separating the rear stage from Georgian Bath, represented by a frieze of cartoon faces and a model section of Royal Crescent. Georgian interiors are signalled by tall pale-blue rococo doors and a few white pieces of period furniture. This economically suggests both the artifice of the age and of the play itself, and the production's spanning of time between the Georgian era and our own.
The Rivals is a hugely entertaining production, and one that, to borrow from the irremediable Mrs Malaprop, an audience will not readily wish to illiterate from its memory.
Reviewer: Jill Sharp