Speaking on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter remarked that the theatre is a battleground on which the playwright and actors are pitched against the audience. What is vital, he added, is that the actors must win.
His comments came into sharp relief in the new revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's ever-popular 18th century comedy of manners, The Rivals, which is about as menacing as a particularly plump armchair. This is our ancestors' answer to TV's Keeping Up Appearances, The Good Life, or Last of the Summer Wine. Whatever teeth the play may once have had have long since worn smooth.
This being a farce, there are entrances, exits and asides to the audience aplenty. Typically too, we are in possession to information withheld from the protagonists, most of whom are engaged in amorous pursuit of one another.
The enjoyment now will depend in no small part on how rib-tickling you find the linguistic pratfalls of Mrs Malaprop, viz, "she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile", and "he's the very pineapple of politeness".
The audience at Bath, where, coincidentally, The Rivals is set, basked in the production, even finding ‘Malapropisms’ where there were none. And in truth Stephanie Cole is first-rate as Mrs Malaprop, though arguably far too benign.
Similarly, the rose-tinted spectacles worn by director Christopher Morahan means that George Baker also delivers a Sir Anthony Absolute who never rises above the mildly dyspeptic, in contrast to all the evidence in the text. Still, there's fun to be had if you accept this undemanding production at face value.
Morahan ensures the play steams along at the requisite rate of knots and Mark Bailey's set and period costumes are handsome enough. Jasmin Hyde as Lydia Languish is not sufficiently arch, but Nicholas Boulton as Jack Absolute is right on the button, a winning mixture of charm and connivance.
I was left wondering, somewhat perversely perhaps, whether a production directed by Pinter would have left me a little more shaken and stirred.
- Pete Wood (reviewed at Bath Theatre Royal)