(The British Actors Theatre Company)
it comes to writing comedies, there are few better subjects for a playwright
to exploit than matters of the heart. Shakespeare famously once wrote "the course
of true love never did run smooth" and in this much-loved Restoration comedy,
RB Sheridan makes sport from the amorous trials and tribulations of his contemporaries.
Penned as a means of making a fast buck when Sheridan was just 23, The Rivals is set in the elegant and historic city of Bath. Here resides Lydia Languish (Miranda Floy), whose head is full of romantic novels, which has her dreaming of eloping with a poor and penniless lover. To this end, potential suitor Captain Jack Absolute (Mark Healy) takes on the guise of a poor solider called Beverley and indulges her hopelessly romantic notions of love through his letters.
Sadly for Jack his cunning plan begins to misfire when the word muddling Mrs Malaprop (Gabrielle Drake) arranges with his bad tempered father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Michael Jayston), for Jack to marry Lydia. As all this is unfolding, a close friend of Jack’s named Faulkland (Stash Kirkbride) has fallen in love with Lydia’s cousin, Julia (Maria Miles). But despite her sincere devotion to him, Faulkland is riddled with the most ridiculous doubts regarding her commitment, which begins to threaten their relationship.
Add to this bubbling melting pot a scheming maid called Lucy (Kate O’Mara), country bumpkin Bob Acres (Mark Noble) and a strutting Irishman by the name of Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Arthur Bostrom), and you have all the ingredients for a delightful comic romp.
But although this celebrated play contained a good smattering of satire and witty social observations, it didn’t provide the uproarious start to the new theatre season one might have hoped for. The most immediate problem on the opening night was picking up what was coming out of the actors’ mouths. For audience members with no previous knowledge of The Rivals, the opening scene between Fag (Antony Howes) and Thomas the Coachman (Gary Richards) provides a useful explanation of the matters about to unfold.
Sadly, Fag’s Cockney drawl was over-hammed as to make it inaudible. The same problem blighted the performance of Richards, who was equally hard to decipher when playing David later in the play. Puzzled looks around me suggested it wasn’t your reviewer’s hearing at fault, although the acoustics in the auditorium may shoulder some of the blame.
The initial scenes chugged along with barely a titter to be heard, as the production struggled to find rhythm and zest. Thank goodness, then, for Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony, whose introduction prompted an immediate thawing in the stalls. As Mrs Malaprop, Drake gave a confident and bristling performance, delivering her character’s confusion of lines with clarity, while never playing the part for cheap laughs. Jayston was similarly impressive and commanding in his portrayal of the short-fused Sir Anthony.
Other individual performances of note came from Healy as Jack Absolute and Kirkbride, who was splendid as the neurotic Faulkland. Playing Lydia, Foy was deliciously fluffy and melodramatic. But as the meek Julia, Miles appeared flat in comparison, favouring a strange, gulping delivery that quickly became irksome. Worthy cameos came from O’Mara, Noble and Bostrom, who perhaps overcooked the Irish brogue a smidgen.
While the set was period and grand, it was also bland and sterile, and scene changes involved little more than a procession of chez lounges and other bits of furniture. But credit to director Knight Mantell for infusing these breaks with engaging period hubbub from the more minor actors.
As someone who’s never studied or seen any of Sheridan’s plays before, this production was something of a disappointment; those more familiar with RB’s work may draw greater pleasure and mirth from its performance.
Copyright J A Waddington 2002. For syndication rights, please email.
1st October 2002 to 5th October 2002 Theatre Royal (and Studio), Norwich
19th Nov 2002 to 30th Nov 2002