The School for Scandal at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre – review

Tinuke Craig’s production of the Richard B Sheridan comedy runs until 6 September

The cast of The School for Scandal at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The company of School for Scandal, © RSC/Marc Brenner

Aside from Christmas shows, I’m struggling to recall the last time a play was produced in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that wasn’t by the house playwright. Under the new co-artistic directors Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey, the first to claim that accolade is Richard B Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners and morals, The School for Scandal.

Quite why they plumped for a rather archaic, creaky old warhorse is a question not wholly answered by Tinuke Craig’s vivid production, for all her extensive efforts to drag it into the 21st century and give it some modern resonance. There are new prologues, epilogues and scene links that hammer home the message that scandal is as much of a crowd-pleaser as it ever was, and the show’s design (Alex Lowde) is a fashionable, eye-popping twist on 18th century wigs and petticoats. DJ Walde’s rhythmic score relies on a five-piece rock band for its influences and Ingrid MacKinnon’s dance routines seem authentically up-to-date.

But the resulting spectacle too often tries just a bit too hard, whether it’s in the heavily stylised line delivery, the neon lighting (Oliver Fenwick) or simply the over-the-top pinkness of it all – Lowde’s set is deliberately strident and makes no concession to subtlety. Even with a near three-hour run time, everything happens at breakneck speed, with too many gags lost to gabbling and precious little light and shade in the pacing, leaving the viewer breathless in the attempt to keep up with Sheridan’s barrage of subplots and intrigue.

Geoffrey Streatfeild comes out of it best as Sir Peter Teazle, the older man who’s taken a young wife and is now living to regret it, fearing she’s considering taking a lover and blinded to the machinations of those who would deceive him. Veteran Shakespearean Streatfeild reveals a sharp ear for comic timing and a centredness that adds much-needed stability to the enterprise. Elsewhere, Siubhan Harrison relishes her role as gossip-in-chief Lady Sneerwell, bedecked in crinolines so wide she has to shuffle awkwardly sideways to get on and off the stage.

Siubhan Harrison (as Lady Sneerwell) in a scene from The School for Scandal at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Siubhan Harrison (as Lady Sneerwell) in The School for Scandal, © RSC/Marc Brenner

Director Craig throws a lot of visual energy into the mix, and there’s plenty of comedy mined from the inherently implausible set-up but, like Joseph and Charles Surface, the dissolute brothers at the heart of the subterfuge, there’s a nagging sense that it’s all rather superficial. A running gag in which supposedly meaningful ‘sentiments’ are delivered in a spotlight to the sound of a heavenly choir becomes wearisome quite quickly, while new jokes about superinjunctions or online privacy lack the satirical bite that Sheridan’s original evidently had in its day.

It’s very bright and noisy and unashamedly played for laughs – which it certainly gets – and it runs in rep with The Merry Wives of Windsor until September. Whether it fully earns its place on the RST stage is another question.