Friday, 21 June 2013

Theatre review: The School for Scandal

I really didn't plan for this to be a year when I went to a lot of new theatres (I have too many to keep up with already) but the newly-opened Park Theatre's main house is hosting a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal directed by Jessica Swale. And as Swale's productions of Restoration comedy are a perennial favourite of mine, with last year's The Busy Body making my annual Top Ten, I couldn't let this slip through the net. The Surface brothers have very different reputations: Joseph (Tom Berish) has carefully cultivated a good name for himself and is well thought-of in society, while his brother Charles (Harry Kerr) is a drunkard, rumoured to be trying to seduce the newly-married Lady Teazle (Kirsty Besterman.) When their wealthy benefactor Sir Oliver (Timothy Speyer) returns from India, he has a suspicion that things are very different beneath the surface, and sets about tricking his nephews into revealing their true selves.

Joseph's manipulation of public perception is helped by the titular School for Scandal, a group of wealthy gossips led by Lady Sneerwell (Belinda Lang,) enjoying nothing more than assassinating the characters of anyone who's not in the room.

Swale's signature style involves interspersing the action with a lot of live music, this time around original songs by Swale and Laura Forrest-Hay. The songs with their anachronistically unsubtle lyrics are fun, although I felt this was the least successful attempt at integrating them into the action of the four productions I've seen. Although one of the best-loved pieces of Restoration comedy, I also find the play itself a tricky proposition, even by the standards of the genre it's got a messy plot whose various strands barely hang together.

But the production makes as good a stab at the material as you're likely to see, and is certainly in a different league to Deborah Warner's misguided attempt of two years ago. After a slow start the arrival of Russell Bentley and Michael Bryher as resident fops Crabtree and Backbite kicks off the unabashedly silly style we've come to expect from the company. I also particularly liked Besterman's Lady Teazle, the shopping-mad socialite who has a change of heart and learns to love her older, rich husband (Daniel Gosling) for real, Buffy Davis as Mrs Candour, the incorrigible gossip who insists she's appalled by the very idea of spreading rumour, and Rachel Atkins making the best of the largely redundant character of Mrs Rowley. Speyer has a warmth and a glint in his eye as the uncle with a fondness for the bad-boy nephew, although Alex said he was constantly distracted by how much he reminded him of Matt Lucas' "Dennis Waterman's agent" character (personally Speyer always make me think of Mole from Wind in the Willows.)

The Park200 venue is a thrust stage reminiscent of a slightly smaller Donmar Warehouse, which doesn't make it as good a fit for the frequent, gentle audience interaction Swale likes to inject into these comedies as the old Southwark Playhouse was, but she manages to fit in some moments of crashing through the fourth wall. And if the big setpiece of characters hiding behind a screen falls a bit flat, there's a brilliantly executed take on the auction of Charles' paintings, with the cast playing his ancestors, scandalized at the low prices they're fetching. This is the least raucous of the four productions I've seen in the series so far, but it's still head and shoulders above most attempts at the genre.

The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is booking until the 7th of July at Park Theatre's Park200, and from the 11th to the 13th of July at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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