Are we on the verge of a genuine revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's plays? We all remember Matilda's aunt in Belloc's Cautionary Tales going to see "that interesting play/The Second Mrs. Tanqueray", but we get little chance to see any of them ourselves. However, this is Chris Monks' second production of The Schoolmistress this year (the first was at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) and it would do wonders for this nation in times of trouble if we could increase the once-every-20-years ratio of Pinero's great farces.
The Schoolmistress is a totally joyous piece of work, especially in a production as pitch-perfect as this. The infectious glee spreads from the pre-performance and interval strains of "Pineapple Poll" (Pinero's contemporaries Gilbert and Sullivan were equally adept at wicked parody of the over-dignified) into a stylish and pacy production without a hint of a weak (or even a medium-strong) link.
There are certain problems with a modern production of The Schoolmistress, notably the fact that it requires a cast of 16. The Stephen Joseph Theatre economises by using three members of the Youth Theatre and five members of the cast of Beauty and the Beast (running concurrently), plus three actors doubling. But there is no hint of economy in Sue Condie's handsome designs!
Explaining the ramifications of Pinero's farce plot would spoil the surprises for those wise enough to take a trip to Scarborough. It is based largely on deception. Miss Dyott, the Headmistress of Volumnia College, has secretly taken a husband (a gentleman of more class than cash) and equally secretly is playing the lead role in a saucy comic opera.
One of the pupils staying at the college over Christmas is Dinah Rankling (the demurely deceptive Rebecca Tanwen), under lock and key because she has taken up with an unsuitable male – her secret is that she has actually married him. Add in a mischievously manipulative governess-to-be, a pyrotechnical servant, a father and a husband each perpetually on the brink of spontaneous combustion, light the blue touch paper and retire!
In a uniformly excellent cast Catherine Kinsella stands out as Peggy Hesslerigge, the orphan in training as a governess, who attacks all obstacles with the non-conformity of a New Woman on a mission. A splendid set of eccentrics is headed by Richard Teverson's increasingly manic dandy, the Honourable Vere Queckett, Peter Macqueen's explosive Rear Admiral Archibald Rankling and Lucas Smith's equally combustible Reginald Paulover, whilst Henry Devas does a neatly convincing job as a nice sensible chap. The Schoolmistress is not as much at the centre of things as one might expect, but Sarah Moyle manages her transformation with panache.
The Schoolmistress continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 4 January 2014.