The Rivals is one of the most outrageously plotted plays in the British theatre repertoire. Making fun of the heroine, Lydia Languish, and her penchant for romantic fiction, it tells how a baronet's son, Jack Absolute, purports to be a penniless young officer in order to win her heart. Complications ensue as he leaps from one role to another before all ends happily ever after.
Though Sheridan's story is inherently lively, director Lindsay Posner treats the text with kid gloves to the point that the result is more theatrical museum piece than anything – in fact, this production is as stale and plodding a rendition as you're likely to see. Ashley Martin-Davis's over-stylised set is a distraction. Gary Yershon's music is an irritation and the evening drags on and on before it reaches its conclusion.
There are some clunky attempts to introduce elements of comedy – with actors putting on strange voices – that succeed in reducing the piece to a sort of 18th century Carry On film. The weirdest voice of all belongs to Ian Hughes Faulkland, whining about the supposed unfaithfulness of his fiancée. (I was constantly reminded of Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served: a truly unfortunate comparison).
The most famous character in the play is the language-mangling Mrs Malaprop. Her misuse of words can (and indeed should) be very funny. Unfortunately, Wendy Craig takes a far too heavy-handed an approach. Whereas the speeches should flow naturally, she is obviously terrified that we might miss one of her solecisms so she ensures that she puts the stress on the wrongly-used words, just in case we missed the joke. It has the effect of listening to a foreign language tape, where students are invited to put the correct word in place of the one being misused.
For all the joking, Mrs Malaprop is ultimately a very sad character; we see this at the end when she realises that letters sent by Lucius O Trigger were destined for Lydia. Ms Craig's look of anguish is a demonstration that she really can act, it's a pity it takes so long.
But no one in this production can really escape criticism. David Tennant (who has already proved himself an accomplished comic actor this season) tries his best as Jack Absolute, and Benjamin Whitrow, an old hand at this game, demonstrates more flair for comedy than the rest of the cast put together - but even these two can't set the production alight.
This really is a miserable evening. Somewhere in the mess lies hidden one of the gems of British theatre. There are moments when the real play emerges like sunshine peeking from behind the clouds, but these are few and far between. Most of the time, the play just drags and not just for the audience. The cast don't look like they're having a good time either, and that's always a sure sign that the comedy''s not working.
Note: This review dates from April 2000 and the production's original run at Stratford's Swan Theatre.
The Rivals is one of that handful of classic English comedies written by an Irishman. The first play of the 24-year-old Richard Brinsley Sheridan, it's semi-autobiography pushed to the edge of farce and full of richly comic characters which, all too often, self-indulgent actors reduce to grotesque caricatures. But there's no risk of that happening under Lindsay Posner's firm direction of this intelligent and disciplined cast.
The Rivals is set in Bath in 1775 and is played in the elegant and elaborate costumes and wigs of the period. The action revolves around the wooing of Lydia Languish (Emily Raymond) by Captain Jack Absolute (David Tennant). Lydia, inspired by the popular fiction of the day, longs for a romantic elopement and so Jack pretends to be a poor soldier to win her. When Jack's father orders him to marry a wealthy heiress, who turns out to be none other than Lydia herself, a wondrous series of farcical set-pieces ensues.
But the strength of The Rivals lies in its characters not its plot. Wendy Craig triumphs as Mrs Malaprop. Craig avoids the trap of making the character too vulgar; her ignorant misuse of words (which has made the Malaprop name part of the language) is all the funnier when it comes from the mouth of an elegant woman. And at the end, when she is ridiculed and rejected, she injects a tiny note of tragedy and wins the sympathy of all.
Benjamin Whitrow as Jack's irascible father, Sir Anthony Absolute, convinces us without over-doing the bluster. The gales of laughter which swept from the audience showed how right the director and cast were to trust Sheridan and restrain themselves from going over the top. Whitrow's Sir Anthony is all the funnier for being a credible and recognisable father.
In one of the greatest comic inventions of the evening, Ian Hughes plays Jack's friend Falkland as an infuriatingly fussy little man, full of doubts and determined always to find the black side of every silver lining. But it's Jack Absolute himself who carries this play and gives it pace and purpose. Tennant brings this feat off with consummate ease and assurance. And Captain Absolute wins his Lydia too, but one suspects that, in a few years' time, he may well regret his marriage.
The Rivals is not in any way a serious play. Although Sheridan had political aspirations and later gave up the theatre for parliament, there is no hint here that the American War of Independence has just broken out. A couple of disparaging references to Blackamoors and Ethiopes give no hint that the slave trade lay behind the wealth of Bath. Here, all is elegance, wit and charm, and the audience can go home laughing undisturbed to their beds. This is a delightful, happy and very funny evening which audiences will adore.
The Rivals opened at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30 March 2000 (previews from 23 March) and continued there in repertory until 7 October 2000.