As its title suggests, the plot revolves around the competing suitors for the
hand of the beautiful heiress Lydia Languish, in particular Captain Jack Absolute
who pretends to be the impoverished Ensign Beverley to satisfy his loved one’s
ridiculous romantic fantasy.
The fact that both Lydia’s verbally infelicitous aunt Mrs
Malaprop and Jack’s crusty father Sir Anthony want the couple to marry leads to
much humorous complication.
This wholly comic relationship is offset by the slightly more serious one
between Lydia’s friend Julia and Jack’s friend Faulkland, a neurotically insecure and
irrationally jealous man who can never be convinced of his fiancée’s true love.
Sheridan’s intention is to amuse not to moralize, and there are plenty of laughs to
be had in the play’s romantic intrigues and misunderstandings, delivered with elegant
wit. However, there is also a hint of the problems underlying the protagonists’ love
lives, namely Lydia’s concern that men want to marry her only for her money, and
Faulkand’s doubts that Julia is engaged to him solely out of duty to her dead father’s
This enjoyable if old-fashioned production by the Peter Hall Company (which
appropriately enough originated at the Theatre Royal Bath) entertains without giving
any new insights into the play. Hall (who recently celebrated his 80th birthday)
handles proceedings with assurance but as a whole the show seems a bit lacklustre
and could do with more comic zest. Simon Higlett’s design, inspired by the graceful
exterior of the Royal Crescent, is similarly conservative.
The two most beguiling roles are played by old sparring partners Penelope Keith
and Peter Bowles, reuniting 30 years on from their popular sitcom To the Manor
Born. Keith underplays Mrs Malaprop so that she is not too grotesque, uttering
her ‘malapropisms’ with the quiet conviction of a ‘queen of the dictionary’, and
also suggesting the vulnerability of an ageing woman still looking for love. Bowles
likewise holds back the bluster of a man who cannot bear to be thwarted, but who is
chuffed that his son’s roguery arises out of a similar hot-blooded passion.
In her first professional performance Robyn Addison does extremely well as the
romantic-novel fixated Lydia, projecting a delightfully naïve sensuality, though Tam
Williams’s laddish Jack mugs too much. Annabel Scholey is convincingly distraught
in the only completely serious role of Julia, while as Faulkland Tony Gardner is very
funny in his self-centred perversity. As two larger than life characters, Keiron Self
makes a lively country bumpkin Bob Acres but Gerard Murphy needs more fieriness
as the Irish duel-lover Sir Lucius O’Trigger.
All in all, this staging of the evergreen The Rivals pleases without
reaching the pineapple of perfection.