Caprice. It’s not a word much in use nowadays, unless you’re an underwear model hoping to lend class to an otherwise tawdry career. But in Sheridan’s The Rivals, enjoying a much-publicised revival at the Southwark Playhouse this month, it just keeps cropping up. Caprice, that is, though there’s some fairly impressive décolletage on display, too.
The quintessential post-Shakespearian comedy of errors, Sheridan’s play has it all, save the cross-dressing: saucy servants, parental pleas, misdelivered letters, a hopelessly handsome hero and heroine, even a dual – albeit at tea-time, not dawn. It also, here, has Celia Imrie (on whom pre-show publicity has focused) as match-maker and infamous mistress of language Mrs Malaprop.
The casting is a coup for Southwark while potentially suggesting a traditional approach to the text. Not a bit of it. Director Jessica Swale signals her fresh agenda from the get-go, with a set-piece opener that has the audience whooping with delight. The message? In matters of young love, plus ça change, ladies.
Sheridan’s story centres round the romantic hopes of pretty but sentimental Lydia Languish (period drama regular Charity Wakefield) and kind, put-upon Julia Melville (Ella Smith, of Fat Pig fame) – one the very archetype of caprice, the other the victim of it. Lydia fancies herself in love with penniless Ensign Beverly, rejecting his advances when he turns out to be a Captain, while Julia must deal with the petty jealousies of her own suitor Faulkland.
Ironically, given the production is sold on familiar faces, it’s the lesser known actors who steal the show. As Captain Absolute, Harry Hadden-Paton is a dashing lynchpin, his moustache and knowing winks to audience lending him a touch of Eddie Izzard at his sexiest. Christopher Logan’s weedy, unworldly Bob Acres of Devonshire is both endearing and hilarious.
Masters of physical comedy, they (and the rest of an accomplished cast) ensure this drawing-room comedy feels anything but sedentary, aided by their knowing man-servants deputising as musicians. Oddly, only Imrie takes longer to warm up, initially stumbling over some of Mrs Malaprop’s admittedly pot-holed lines whose delivery must be effortlessly smooth to work.
Eventually, however, she hits full flow, reminding us of Sheridan’s own skills in writing this most imperfect of pantomime dames. In fact, such is the improvement that in Imrie’s hands, Mrs Malaprop’s final fall from grace is actually very moving, all the more so as the other dots of the story are one by one joined up.