Sixty five years ago, Laurence Olivier famously paired The Critic with Oedipus Rex, an audacious double bill that contrasted the deepest tragedy with the purest farce. This pairing at Chichester is more orthodox: both plays employ the ‘play within a play’ device and both have situations where the audience inextricably gets mixed up with the action on stage.
But one can also see some of the method in Olivier’s pairing. Sheridan’s satire is a brilliant parody on conventional tragedy and directors Sean Foley and Jonathan Church pull out all the stops in making sure that every gag hits home.
The plot is simple: Nicholas Le Prevost’s Mr Dangle is the eponymous critic. He finds himself at the rehearsal of Mr Puff, the self-proclaimed master of begging letters and self-promotion, whose execrable tragedy on the Spanish Armada is being rehearsed.
As Puff, the author of the ludicrous tragedy, Richard McCabe gets a succulent feast of a part and proceeds to savour every morsel of it. He’s nearly upstaged by Sean Foley as a richly camp Sir Fretful Plagiary and by Una Stubbs, whose look of utter sadness when described as “your youth” is the funniest moment of the evening.
But funny as The Critic is, it’s more a comedy full of set-pieces rather than a complete play. Maybe Sheridan’s satire is too rich for modern ears. The rewritten opening with its references to coalition governments gets a laugh, but it’s a bit of an open goal. It feels as if Church and Foley don’t really trust Sheridan to speak for himself – although his jibes about critics show that his writing has plenty to recommend itself to 21st-century audiences.
The opening half of the double-bill, Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound is much better. McCabe is even better here as the scruffy, shuffling stand-in critic sent to cover the superb send-up of the Agatha Christie-like whodunit. McCabe presents great contrast with Le Prevost’s silkily smooth Birdboot, taking the opportunity to pursue his romantic entanglements with members of the cast - it’s wickedly funny and clever at the same time.
This is an irresistible combination. The contrast between 20th-century and 18th-century satire shows how little has changed in 200 years. There’s plenty of opportunity to poke fun at bad plays and, as a result, we laugh ourselves silly watching it.