The production, which stars Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, started life at Bath Theatre Royal, the city where Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play is set. The production has another historical significance - the modern Theatre Royal Haymarket was opened on 4 July 1821 with a production of the play.
Keith and Bowles, who famously starred together in the BBC's To the Manor Born, play the verbally misguided Mrs Malaprop and the blinkered Sir Anthony Absolute in the comedy of manners, which is told in five acts.
I spoke to Bowles about reviving a classic play with Peter Hall, being reunited with Penelope Keith 30 years after their sitcom appearances and coming back to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Rivals?
It’s the most wonderful comedy of extraordinary characters who on the surface appear to be either romantic, comic, or eccentric. Underneath, there’s a very strong underlying theme, that’s a comment on the period - marrying for money. It’s a very interesting view – people tend to think it’s just comedy, but it isn’t – there’s an underlying darker side which I find fascinating.
I also find it very interesting in my part that the general impression before you play the part is that he’s rather a bullying sort of chap, but he’s not at all. He’s someone who loves his son desperately, is keen to do the best for him, and that’s the tenor of the times. I also discovered a wonderful relationship with Mrs Malaprop, which I don’t know has ever shown before, but I think he’s very attracted to her.
Why do you think The Rivals is one an often revived classic play?
Well, looking back, I don’t think I’ve seen it before. I don’t know if I’d read it before actually, I must have read it at RADA. Whenever it has been performed those two leading parts were always played by heavyweight actors at the time, but I don't know how they played it.
When I read pieces, even classic ones, I respond like an actor who’s just been given a script by the playwright. I know from working with Peter (Hall) that he finds that very interesting because I don’t respond like other actors, who may have seen the play or played it in rep. I have a completely fresh outlook on it. I know Peter finds it stimulating and I certainly find working with him extremely stimulating.
Can you tell us a little bit more about working with Peter Hall? How has it changed over the years? You both have incredible careers behind you.
Well I don’t think mine compares to his quite, but it started off extremely well, considering that I’d been trying to get into the National for donkey’s years and never got anywhere. I’d never auditioned or anything, but I think they just thought I was a television actor.
Anyway, the moment we did The Separate Table, we hit it off, and Peter raised the bar and he recognised something in me. Actors are very self-centred, and you have to have a lot of self belief. He had more belief in me than I did in myself, and was able to expand my ambitions; got me to recognise things about my own ability that I wasn’t aware of. He’s done that for me the whole way through.
What was it like launching the play in Bath, where the piece is set?
The set is Bath, with the circus at the back. It was great being in Bath. We’re breaking records everywhere we go to on tour, not just in Bath, I mean the people really are coming. The people are coming and cheering. It’s very interesting. It’s brought the company together very well, it’s a lovely company.
Was the production always destined to come into the West End?
Well I imagine so; it was a very expensive production so I think so. Having got Penny and I together, I imagine the management were very hopeful, but I’ve been around long enough to know you never know. But certainly they were hopeful.
How is it working with Penny thirty years after appearing in To The Manor Born together?
Well it’s marvellous. We suit each other tremendously, it’s just a natural thing, it always has been. I don’t know why. There is something. I don’t know what it is, because we weren’t particularly friendly after To The Manor Born, and then we did the Christmas special, and it was as thought we’d just finished the series. It was extraordinary. We have enormous respect for each other, we’ve both been around the block a few times.
Do you think both of you being cast came about because of the Christmas special?
I am absolutely certain that we were brought together for our acting ability, and not because we were in a comedy series thirty years ago. That has long since gone.
I’ve only done two television programmes in the last twenty years. I’ve been working on the stage, and many plays in the West End, and I think Penny’s the same, she’s done a lot of roles in the theatre. I think they thought it was a very good idea that we might be able to play the parts rather well. And so far that’s the reaction we’ve had.
Are you looking forward to going back at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket?
Yes, I am. I was last there in Hay Fever with Judi Dench. I’ve always liked the Haymarket, I’ve had several dressing rooms there. Including number one. I did The Beau, there, it was about Beau Brummell being in a lunatic asylum. Marvellous, wonderful play. It’s in a position where audiences like to come. Shaftesbury Avenue can be a bit rowdy sometimes. At least that’s been my experience, anyway. I’ve done two plays with Peter Hall at the Haymarket. I first appeared there I think in 1978 with Geraldine McEwan in Look After Lulu.
Apart from Penny and I, nobody in the rest of the company has been to the Haymarket before. For many of the company members it’s one of the first jobs they've done. For one of them, it literally is the first time they’ve done a job, they’ve never been on stage before.
But it must be quite interesting on tour with a young ensemble to watch them find things out?
Yes, in fact they’ve paid me wonderful compliments, about how much they’re learning from me through watching me. They all know, because I’ve said so, that if they want to discuss anything, feel free, absolutely to talk to me. On the whole, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything to a younger actor, unless they came to me. Sometimes they do. And then it’s a different matter. But I wouldn’t dream of making suggestions to a young actor, at the beginning of their career, that's up to the director.
You've recently written your autobiography. What is it like reflecting on your life?
I found it just flowed out; I just sat down with a pen. It came very easily.The only thing that’s sad about it is that so many people are dead. I found it surprisingly straightforward. I was surprised when people liked it, and didn’t want to trash it.
The Rivals opens on 23 November 2010 (previews from 10 November) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket where it is currently booking until 26 February 2011.