Good-natured, sedate and beautifully written, Sheridan’s 18th century comedy of romantic love and society manners gets, you might say, the production it deserves at the Haymarket.

But it’s not a tremendously exciting affair. The design of Bath on the stage by Simon Higlett is a slab-like mausoleum with bricked in windows on the Circus, unsuitable for the interior exchanges and atmospherically wanting for the public scenes and the duelling finale in King’s Mead Fields.

Peter Hall’s Theatre Royal, Bath revival, headed by Penelope Keith’s stately Mrs Malaprop, enunciating her mistakes with unarguable precision, and Peter Bowles’ dyspeptic, rakish Sir Anthony Absolute, meddling in his son’s affairs, sounds like an ideal seasonal offering at this address.

But the show only really takes off when infused with the gathering of good will at the end. Oddly, no-one thinks that the way Mrs Malaprop speaks is peculiar; she’s certainly as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile. And Sir Anthony’s assurance that she’s still in full bloom is flattery, not fact. The genteel incidental music of Mick Sands says it all.

Newcomer Robyn Addison is a lively Lydia Languish, but her diction runs away with her thought; she’s a fair match in that respect for Tam Williams’ tousled Captain Jack. The niceties of romantic sentiment are sometimes hard to follow in the lovers’ quartet, but Annabel Scholey’s attractively demure Julia and Tony Gardner’s absurdly deceptive Faulkland are attentive and subtle in their inflections.

There’s one great moment when the company burst through the doors at the duel, and there is much to savour in the performances of Keiron Self as the bumptious Bob Acres, Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius O’Trigger and Ian Conningham as the servant Fag.

Miss Keith finds sudden sadness in Mrs M at the end, but that would have been more effective had she seemed more vulnerable and less cut-glass earlier on. Still, it is very good to see her back on the stage she has graced so often in the past, even if, for some unaccountable reason, the trademark green Haymarket curtain has been replaced with a peachy new pink one.

- Michael Coveney


Please note: This FOUR-STAR review is from the production at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

First produced for the stage in 1775, you might think that the then contemporary characters and situations, regularly played out in the streets and assembly rooms of Bath and which are so richly drawn in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, would have little in common with today’s audiences. However, as now, 18th century audiences loved to laugh at themselves and the foibles of the British character, and many of the more exaggerated characteristics and neurosis explored are still recognisable today.

The lightness of touch with which Peter Hall directs this new production, allows the similarities to shine through, and provides the opportunity to identify with, and engage in the situations that play out.

A comedy of manners, The Rivals takes a gentle swipe at the pretentions and pre-occupations of society as much as the absurdities and intensities of young love.

The plot primarily centres on the two young lovers, Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute (played by the beautiful Robyn Addison, in her first professional role, and dashing Tam Williams). Lydia - head full of popular novels of the time - is in love with love, and desires a purely romantic love affair, free from the constraints of social status, inheritance and parental approval. To woo her, Jack pretends to be poor "Ensign Beverley" and Lydia is enthralled with the idea of eloping with her poor soldier in spite of her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (the divine Penelope Keith).

Lydia has two other potential suitors in Bob Acres, a rather buffoonish and cowardly country gent, played to great effect by Keiron Self (better known to TV audiences as Roger in My Family), and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, an impoverished and confrontational Irish gentleman (in a hearty, full bodied performance from Gerard Murphy). Secondary to this is the perhaps more recognisable courtship problems of fretful Faulkland, who tortures himself and his love, Julia, with his insecurities, forever testing her fidelity. Tony Gardner, as Faulkland, delivers a fine comic performance, with every pang of guilt, suspicion and self doubt etched across his face, and in his mannerisms. Annabel Scholey makes a sympathetic Julia, managing to maintain her '18th century' composure throughout her trials. With Lucy (Carlyss Peer), the not-so-simple, house maid, and Fag (Ian Conningham), the conniving manservant variously passing messages and mixed messages between the key players, a series of misunderstandings and revelations ensue, culminating in a hilarious ‘duel’ at King’s Mead Fields.

Although the romantic leads are engaging, it is the array of colourful characters that revolve around them that sets this production alight, and the fine cast are all superb in their roles.

Mrs. Malaprop is, of course, the chief comic figure, thanks to her continual misuse of words that sound like the words she intends but mean something completely different. Her ‘talent’ is described in the play, by Julia speaking of her next encounter with the lady: “.. she shall treat me, as long as she chooses, with her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.” The term malapropism was coined in reference to the character, and is oft impersonated and reproduced in modern comedy.

Penelope Keith, as the notorious phrase scrambler, and Peter Bowles, as Jack’s bombastic father Sir Anthony, deliver a master class in period comedy. In their first ever stage paring, the warmth and ease that exists between these two actors (whose first, memorable partnership was in BBC TVs To The Manor Born over 30 years ago!) radiates from the stage, making their on-stage parries a real treat.

The set, designed by Simon Higlett, and costumes, by Christopher Woods, conjure the elegance of Georgian Bath without overpowering, and are enhanced by the sumptuously refurbished surroundings of the Theatre Royal’s main auditorium.

- Simon Cole