Without getting all academic on its ass, and despite what the programme may tell you, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play is not a ‘Restoration comedy’ — being about 115 years too late for the demise of Oliver Cromwell and the coronation of Charles II. It is, however, an endlessly lively comedy of manners which relies on instantly-familiar stock characters and farcical situations and which have since been an influence on the likes of Wilde and Wodehouse, the Carry On films and pantomime itself.
The Rivals is set in Bath, where ‘society’ was less stratified than in Georgian London. This could almost be ‘Carry On Up The Pump Room’ - what with the gentry, soldiery and farmers pursuing their female quarry with all the subtlety and artifice of Sid James going after Barbara Windsor.
One of director Selina Cadell’s twists is to indulge some modernisation in costumes — all the women’s skirts are made from bedspreads, and not everyone is required to ponce about in a powdered wig. Her masterstroke though is to pitch the piece as an Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Posturing stage style is celebrated and the fourth wall ignored — so characters interact informally with the audience. Working with expert Didi Hopkins from the National Theatre, the whole cast has been schooled in Commedia stage business and badinage. This provides the energy which bowls this three-hour five-act piece along at a terrific rate.
Need to know the plot? Obsessed by trashy graphic novels (the 18th century equivalent of Sky Atlantic) Lydia Languish wants to be romanced by a prince masquerading as a pauper, so her soldier beau Jack Absolute pretends to be a lowly sailor while his pompous father brokers an arranged marriage… with the same girl. At the same time, rustic clod Bob Acres has set his cloth cap at what he believes to be the same lady, but turns out to be her elderly and decidedly dotty aunt, Mrs Malaprop. It does take over an hour for the basics of the plot to be outlined — and there’s a soggy period in the second half before the grand denouement — but the proceedings are enlivened by a fine cast and some genuinely superb performances.
Jenny Rainsford strums Lydia’s flouncing irrationality like a highly-strung instrument, rolling her eyes and windmilling her arms just short of the strait jacket in a hugely entertaining and original interpretation. Sir Anthony Absolute’s bombast is more conventional but captured with perfect timing by the wonderful Nicholas le Prevost, while as his soldier son Jack, Iain Batchelor has a fine time of it driving the plot turns with ingenuity and impressive vocal agility.
Bearing all before her though — and billowing forth like a three-masted schooner in full sail — comes Gemma Jones as the outrageous Mrs Malaprop. Wild of eye and unsteady of gait, she looks and sounds startlingly like the LibDems' Shirley Williams. When Mrs Malaprop spouts her famously mispronounced views on education and the role of women, it’s even more like Question Time. This show, however, is much funnier.