Penned in 1775 as a means of making quick cash to support his lavish lifestyle, RB Sheridan's classic Restoration comedy is set in the elegant city of Bath. Here resides Lydia Languish (Miranda Floy), whose head is full of fluffy romantic novels and who dreams of eloping with a penniless lover. To this end, potential suitor Captain Jack Absolute (Mark Healy) takes on the guise of a poor solider called Beverley and indulges her hopelessly romantic notions of love.
Unfortunately, the wheels begin to come off Jack's cunning plan when the famously confused Mrs Malaprop (Gabrielle Drake) arranges with his peppery father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Michael Jayston), for Jack to marry Lydia. An almighty romantic tangle ensues, aided in no small part by scheming maid Lucy (Kate O'Mara), who gets her kicks from creating amorous confusion.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the opening dialogue between two servants is an important explanatory device. It's therefore regrettable that Antony Howes over-hams Fag's cockney twang as to render most of what he's saying incomprehensible.
The initial scenes plod along as the production struggles to find rhythm and spark. Thank goodness, then, for Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony, whose introduction prompts an immediate thaw in the stalls. As Malaprop, Drake gives a bristling performance, delivering her muddling mouthfuls of lines with clarity, while never playing the part for cheap laughs. Jayston is similarly impressive and commanding in his portrayal of the bad-tempered gentleman.
As 17-year-old Lydia, Floy is delightfully naïve and melodramatic. By contrast, Maria Miles is pretty dreary as the meek Julia, speaking in an odd, gulping manner that quickly becomes irksome. Healy is powerful and assured as Jack, while Stash Kirkbride (Faulkland) is wonderfully insecure and neurotic. Notable cameos come from Arthur Bostrom (the strutting Sir Lucius O'Trigger), who perhaps overcooks the Irish brogue a smidgen, and Mark Noble as whimsical country bumpkin, Jack Acres.
While Dickon O'Mara's set is regal, it is also rather bland and stagnant. Scene changes involve little more than the to-ing and fro-ing of chaise lounges. But credit to director Knight Mantell for infusing these breaks with engaging period hubbub from the more minor actors.
With its bubbling satire and biting social commentary, this latest touring production is sure to delight all Sheridan fans. But those coming cold to RB's work may find it all rather hard going.
- Alex Waddington (reviewed at Bradford's Alhambra Theatre)