Review: The Rivals (Bristol Old Vic)

Julie Legrand stars as Mrs Malaprop in Dominic Hill’s revival

Theatre as a medium can do many things; inform, debate, provoke. Yet the main one and the one that can be most overlooked by those of us in the stalls scribbling into our notepad is a good old fashioned evening of entertainment. Bristol Old Vic's revival of The Rivals, in a co-production with Liverpool Everyman and the Glasgow Citz, provides the fun in spades: it rollicks along, with its tongue always fully in cheek and a malapropism never far from the lips of the character who provides its etymology, Mrs Malaprop.

Its plot, as is usual in the restoration comedies, takes some time to untangle. Lydia is in love with whom she thinks is a penniless officer, Ensign Beverley, who in reality is the much more suitable Captain Jack Absolute. Her guardian Malaprop (Julie Legrand) and Absolute's father Sir Anthony, arrange a marrage of convenience between the pair, unaware that Lydia is planning to elope with her penniless ensign and has no time for the prosperous Absolute. Cue deceipt, deception and role playing before it all just about comes together at the end, disaster averted and for almost everyone a happy ending that is conceived with as much haste as an early Shakespeare comedy.

It is best not to think too hard about it and Dominic Hill's boisterous production ensures you mostly just go with the flow. If directing is 90 per cent in the casting then he had an easy time in this rehearsal room. Legrand, a late replacement for the originally announced Maggie Steed, provides a showcase in preening vanity, her mangling of words mirrored by her vainly imagining a romantic interlude with Irish rogue Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Keith Dunphy) who only has eyes for her ward. She is reunited with former Wicked co-star Desmond Barritt here, who as Sir Anthony doesn't explode in apoplectic rage as many others that I have seen, but instead plays it with the sheer veneer of a gentleman with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he shared more than a few of his son's roguish sensibilities when younger.

That son Rhys Rusbatch bears a startling resemblance to Charlie Cox in Daredevil in his first entrance but thereafter makes something all of his own while trying not to be eclipsed by the wonder of Lucy Briggs-Owen's daring interpretation of Lydia Languish. Coming on and pitching the performance somewhere between Vicki Pollard and a Made In Chelsea reject, she is all elongated vowels and plastic emotion and turns a role that can seem not much more than pretty simpering into a real tour-de-force. The acting teacher Kenneth Rea discusses how great performances stand on a tightrope inches away from crash and burn and this is a watermark of that philosophy. For someone still only in her twenties Briggs-Owen's has already built up an impressive CV but it is unlikely that she has given much better or more daring performances before.

Okay so its sub-plot can feel very close to emotional abuse in this day and age as Nicholas Bishop's Faulkland constantly probes and tests Jessica Hardwick's ever loyal Julia, but you can't legislate for the changes in time and Hill's production keeps it as sympathetic as he can. The designer Tom Rogers aids the idea that this is a world of dress up by stripping the stage right back to reveal the theatre walls and costume rails while flying in handsomely drawn front cloths of elegant Bath. It is an idea rich in illusion. Finally it is especially terrific to watch this eighteenth century gem in the wonders of a beautiful Georgian playhouse. A real treat.

The Rivals runs at Bristol Old Vic until 2 October, then at Liverpool Everyman (5-29 October) and Glasgow Citz (2-19 November).