The Rivals @ Southwark Playhouse, London

cast list
Robin Soans, Harry Hadden-Paton, Tom McDonald, Christopher Logan, Sam Swainsbury, Frank Laverty, Cian Barry, Oliver Hollis, Celia Imrie, Charity Wakefield, Ella Smith, Jenni Maitland

directed by
Jessica Swale
Jessica Swales breezy and pleasing revival of Richard Sheridans eighteenth century satirical comedy has a lot going for it.

Its a spirited production, performed with enthusiasm and energy, and as a result it’s easy to overlook the occasional patchiness in tone.

Celia Imrie plays the language mangling Mrs Malaprop, a character whose name, ironically, added a word to the lexicon.

Her niece Lydia, her head filled full of starry ideas from the novels she reads, longs for romance and finds it in the form of the suitably impoverished Ensign Beverly. She plans an elopement, not knowing that her beloved is actually a Captain, and as the son of the volcanic-tempered Sir Anthony Absolute, is handsomely off as well as handsome.
Despite indulging in a little amorous epistolary dalliance herself, Mrs Malaprop is unimpressed with Lydias dreams and ideals and wants to marry the troublesome girl off to someone of fortune and substance. Unaware that they are already involved with one another (albeit unknowingly on Lydia’s part), Sir Anthony puts forward his son as a contender and the lace of deceptions and misunderstandings becomes even more complex and slippery.

While all this is going on Lydias friend and confidant, Julia, has to contend with a man who is forever twisting himself into jealous knots and fretting over her constancy in his absence. It all concludes with the various male parties lining up to fight each other in the fields outside Bath and everyone else dashing frantically to intercept them.

There are some very strong performances among the sizeable cast. Imrie is rather understated as Mrs Malaprop, but when she is thrown aside by her would-be suitor at the end – when he realises she is not in fact a pretty young thing of seventeen – her hurt is palpable and one suddenly feels a huge rush of warmth for her. Robin Soans is wonderfully blustery as Sir Anthony, an aging rogue with an undimmed eye for the ladies, and Henry Hadden-Patton makes a suitably dashing Captain Jack; at ease with the plays considerable silliness, he is also able to give a real sense of emotional jeopardy to his character’s plight. Ella Smiths Julia provides a centre of serenity and reason amid all the noise and confusion.

Swales production begins winningly, with her Georgian society types grooving to Beyonce, but then it appears to restrain itself and the staging plays out in a more traditional manner. The intimate space of the Southwark Playhouse works both for and against the production: the proximity of the audience is put to good use and a rapport is soon established. Props are handed out to people on the front row and many of the characters asides are aimed at specific audience members; this all works rather well, yet when swords are drawn for the second act duel, the concerned intake of breath that results is triggered in part by fear of being winged by a stray stage blade.

The whole thing trots along nicely. Many of Sheridans observations about the odd ways in which people behave when in love remain sharp and recognisable and Swales production is solidly done, even if it occasionally feels shoe-horned into the small space. Even things that might feel like cock ups in other circumstances, like some endearingly incompetent recorder playing during the brief musical interludes, end up adding to the appeal.

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