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The School for Scandal

The new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park stages a revival of Sheridan's 18th Century comedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Kirsty Besterman (Lady Teazle), Belinda Lang (Lady Sneerwell), Michael Bryher (Benjamin Backbite), Russell Bentley (Crabtree) and Buffy Davis (Mrs Candour)
© Francis Loney

Sheridan's brilliant classic comedy is not always genuinely funny in the theatre, but Jessica Swale's production for her Red Handed Theatre company is an exception: sharp, shallow and scintillating, just like the scandalmongers themselves in their London drawing rooms.

There's Belinda Lang's desiccated, cut-glass Lady Sneerwell, specialising in reducing others to the level of her own injured reputation; or Buffy Davis' over-ripe Mrs Candour, resembling a creased apricot and wielding a fan like a furry loofah; or Michael Bryher's Benjamin Backbite, imploding with giggles and inserting a very naughty pause on, "I wish she would blow me…kisses."

That "she" is Jessica Clark's frowning, frowsty Maria, a character you usually never notice in the shenanigans surrounding the precarious marriage of the Teazles and the "testing" of Charles Surface (dangerously unkempt Harry Kerr), the supposedly black sheep whose devious brother, Joseph (Tom Berish, glittering like a snake in his gold and black sheath of a costume), is the society pin-up.

"I bear no malice to the people I abuse," an excellent motto for a critic, is the waspish aside of Kirsty Besterman's Lady Teazle, a kitten with claws, who inveigles a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey into the screen scene and can dart around illicitly in full view of her elderly husband Sir Peter (Daniel Gosling) when he removes his specs to clean them.

This famous incident with the "little French milliner" is beautifully done, typical of Swale's ingenuity with this kind of comedy. The other great scene, the auction of family portraits, becomes a mobile museum of faces in frames, other cast members mummified in three large transparent cabinets that form the heart of Simon Kenny's design.

The action is dotted with several brand new songs, too, composed by Swale and her musical director, Laura Forrest Hay, opening with a paean to "a lark in the park," followed by a "bad boy" ensemble chorale for Charles and Maria, a portrait gallery number and a spirited, unapologetic finale.

It's a much better balanced ratio of songs to comedy than the National came up with, for instance, on The Magistrate. A few minor characters have been cut and old Rowley (Rachel Atkins) has been feminised.

But this is a fairly full version, and must come as a surprising delight to anyone new to the play; a play in which the best you can say of someone is that you will never traduce them by saying anything in their praise; and may your rickety, unloved old husband, Lady Teazle (with whom she enjoys "a daily jangle"), live these 50 years!