Saturday, 1 November 2014

Theatre review: The Rivals

The most popular of late Restoration comedies, Sheridan's The Rivals follows the titular suitors for the hand of wealthy Bath heiress Lydia Languish (Jenny Rainsford.) The two most significant candidates are actually the same person: Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) has the approval of his father Sir Anthony (Nicholas Le Prevost) and of Lydia's guardian, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones.) Lydia, though, is a fan of the new florid romantic novels, and won't be satisfied by a romance without a bit of danger in it. So Jack knows the only way to her heart is to pose as the lowly Ensign Beverley and promise her a scandalous elopement. Meanwhile the bumbling country gentleman Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) believes he has a chance with the heiress, as does Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Adrian McLoughlin,) who has letters to prove it - in fact O'Trigger's secret admirer isn't Lydia but her aunt.

Mrs Malaprop is The Rivals' most famous character, and Jones plays her as something of a grotesque but with a vulnerability as well, and she doesn't overplay the mispronounced words. There's plenty more comic extremes in the play though, and while they're all well-cast, I did feel like Selina Cadell's production might have been better off focusing on just a few of them.

Coming across particularly well here is the secondary romantic couple, Justine Mitchell's long-winded Julia and her beau Faulkland (Adam Jackson-Smith,) who's such a pessimist that regardless of what Julia does, he takes it as proof that she doesn't really love him. Rainsford is also unwilling to let Lydia be a bland heroine, and takes advantage of the character's obsession with romantic literature to come up with an endearingly odd performance, her overdramatic nature seeing her swoon and spin around so much she must get dizzy by the end of these two-performance days.

Cadell's production has an engaging approach that sees the actors interact frequently with the audience - most of the characters acknowledge them when they first enter, some seeming quite surprised to find them there. It's a silly approach that suits the play, and leads to some nice metatheatrical moments like Carl Prekopp's switching between the two different servants he plays in the same scene.

There's a bit of a pacing issue though, with a show that comes in at a full three hours and although often very funny, starts to lose momentum in the second half, just as it should really be coming into its own. I wonder if every previous production I've seen has been edited somewhat, as I did find myself wishing Cadell had trimmed some of the less funny subplots. Batchelor's performance, too, starts to default to "quite shouty," which made me less patient with the show overall. So this is a flawed Rivals, which perhaps tries a bit too hard to give every one of Sheridan's plot strands and comic grotesques their moment in the spotlight, but which does hit the mark in quite a lot of them.

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is booking until the 15th of November at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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