Caprice. It’s not a word much in use nowadays, unless
you’re an underwear model hoping to lend class to an otherwise tawdry career. But in Sheridan’s
The Rivals, enjoying a much-publicised revival at the Southwark
Playhouse this month, it just keeps cropping up. Caprice, that is, though
there’s some fairly impressive décolletage on display, too.
The quintessential post-Shakespearian comedy of errors,
Sheridan’s play has it all, save the cross-dressing: saucy servants, parental
pleas, misdelivered letters, a hopelessly handsome hero and heroine, even a
dual – albeit at tea-time, not dawn. It also, here, has Celia Imrie (on whom
pre-show publicity has focused) as match-maker and infamous mistress of
language Mrs Malaprop.
The casting is a coup for Southwark while potentially suggesting a traditional approach to the text. Not a bit of it. Director Jessica Swale
signals her fresh agenda from the get-go, with a set-piece opener that has the audience
whooping with delight. The message? In matters of young love, plus ça change, ladies.
Sheridan’s story centres round the romantic hopes of pretty
but sentimental Lydia Languish (period drama regular Charity Wakefield) and kind,
put-upon Julia Melville (Ella Smith, of Fat Pig fame) – one the very archetype
of caprice, the other the victim of it. Lydia fancies herself in love with
penniless Ensign Beverly, rejecting his advances when he turns out to be a
Captain, while Julia must deal with the petty jealousies of her own suitor
Ironically, given the production is sold on familiar
faces, it’s the lesser known actors who steal the show. As Captain Absolute, Harry
Hadden-Paton is a dashing lynchpin, his moustache and knowing winks to audience
lending him a touch of Eddie Izzard at his sexiest. Christopher Logan’s weedy, unworldly Bob Acres
of Devonshire is both endearing and hilarious.
Masters of physical comedy, they (and the rest of an
accomplished cast) ensure this drawing-room comedy feels anything but sedentary,
aided by their knowing man-servants deputising as musicians. Oddly, only Imrie takes
longer to warm up, initially stumbling over some of Mrs Malaprop’s admittedly
pot-holed lines whose delivery must be effortlessly smooth to work.
Eventually, however, she hits full flow, reminding us of
Sheridan’s own skills in writing this most imperfect of pantomime dames. In
fact, such is the improvement that in Imrie’s hands, Mrs Malaprop’s final fall
from grace is actually very moving, all the more so as the other dots of the
story are one by one joined up.