School for Scandal, RSC at the Barbican

At first sight, School for Scandal seems a tailor-made opportunity for director Declan Donnellan to prove that there s life after Cheek By Jowl, his now defunct but still renowned touring company. School for Scandal is one of the first modern plays in terms of its political nuances, overlaid with much romping and wordplay, and its contemporary setting.

Indeed, as this production s programme notes point out, the play was revived, shortly after its opening, as an explicitly political drama such were the resonances for a contemporary audience. And certainly, in this modern time where the question of how much people s private lives should be revealed to the public, this play retains its relevance. Nevertheless, despite such promising indicators, this is a profoundly disappointing production.

We re quickly thrust into the play within the play as the troop of players are assembled to perform in front of the Prince Regent. It s never made clear what the point of this particular trick is - except that it allows us to see that Sheridan himself plays the part of the drunken, dissolute, good-hearted Charles (a ready identification with the soon to be bankrupt). Whatever the reason, the concept didn t quite work.

Nor did the entire first half of this production. Admittedly, there s a lot of exposition to get through before we come to all the twists in the later part of the play, but that s really no excuse for the plodding tempo and lack of spark. Part of the problem is Deborah Findley s Lady Sneerwell, the pivot of the “school for scandal”. She really doesn t dominate as one would expect this character to.

There are compensations, thankfully - Kenneth Cranham as the much put-upon Sir Peter Teazle and Celia Imrie as Lady Candour could probably perform these parts in their sleep, and Emma Fielding plays a fetching Lady Teazle while Robert Goodale is a scheming, conniving slippery Snake, the newspaperman who hates to be seen doing good. But its the two old Cheek by Jowl hands who steal the show - Matthew Macfadyen is an excellent and vigorous Charles/Sheridan and Stephen Mangan, who was a superb Don Pedro in Cheek by Jowl s Much Ado earlier this year, steals the show as a spiteful, pretentious preposterous Sir Benjamin Backbite.

It says something that a relatively minor part dominates the production so.

Maxwell Cooter