Theatre Review: The Rivals

Posted on: 08 December 2010 by Rhian Mainwaring

Courtship and duplicity in late 18th century bath keeps the wheels of the plot in motion in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic, good-humoured comedy The Rivals which is given a renewed lease of life in Peter Hall’s sparkling new production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

The RivalsIt is 1775 and the fashionable world descend on the spa city to take the waters, show off its finery, enjoy the gossip and pursue romance. Among them are the verbally misguided Mrs Malaprop, her absurdly romantic niece, Lydia Languish, the blinkered Sir Anthony Absolute, his dashing son Captain Jack Absolute, the blustering Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and the bumpkin Bob Acres.

Through the course of a single day these suitors and schemers and their servants indulge in an assortment of hilarious and dangerous intrigues – Sir Anthony goading his son into courting a girl to whom he is in fact already secretly engaged under a false name to titillate her dreams of elopement and Mrs Malaprop being deceived into believing she has a young suitor who is passionately fond of her – before everyone is paired off to their own satisfaction.

This play was inspired by Sheridans’ own amorous adventures in Bath and was the first of the Dublin born playwrights works to be produced (at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on January 17th 1775) and immediately established his reputation as a dramatist of wit and grace. Indeed this is one of a group of plays which while looking honestly at the absurdity of human behaviour and individuals’ follies and foibles, ends up celebrating them. Admittedly, though, most of the wit derives from the character of Mrs Malaprop (from whom the term malapropism is coined) whose select words are ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced – I particularly liked her description of Captain Jack Absolute as ‘the very pineapple of politeness!’.

Simon Higlett has created an elegant stage design based on Bath’s Royal Crescent , giving the play a strong sense of time and place and making us believe we are actually there!

But it is the splendid perforamces, most notable the two leads Penelope Keith and Peter bowles, stars of the much loves BBC Television series To The Manor Born and here appearing on stage for the first time, that make this comedy seem so fresh over 300 years after it was first written. Keith as Mrs malaprop delivers her inspired mangling of the English language, talking about ‘allegories on the Nile’ with great verbal eloquence, combine hauteur, roguishness and vulnerability in a performance that is both poignant and endearing. Peter Bowles is terrific too as Sir Anthony Absolute, a man prone to feisty bad temper whenever his iron will is crossed, yet always maintaining a sense of dignity. Fine support is provided by Tam Williams as his son Captain Jack Absolute, Robyn Addison as Lydia Languish, Annabel Scholey as her cousin Julia Melville, Tony Gardner as Faulkland who is inlove with her, Keiron Self as Bob Acres and Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius O’Trigger. This then is an ideal choice for a theatrical outing over the Christmas period.

By Laurence Green

Plays until: February  26 2011

Box office: 0845 481 1870

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The Rivals?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic, good-humoured comedy The Rivals stars Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith and is an ideal choice for a theatrical outing over the Christmas period.

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