The Rivals is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s homage to Bath, the city that was the height of fashion in the eighteenth century for its elegance, Palladian architecture and therapeutic waters (all of which it retains today- just not the huge frocks and hairstyles found in this play), and where Peter Hall’s production appropriately originated. There can be no better place to see it outside of the Bath itself than in beautiful Richmond, which has to be London’s answer to Bath. I am an admirer of Peter Hall’s ‘straightforward’ style, and his absolutely traditional production of Pygmalion (also with Christopher Woods’s sets and Simon Higlet’s costumes) was a great favourite of mine as every single aspect was so perfectly spot-on. The Rivals is played against the handsome backdrop of the Royal Crescent and the cast play their roles very appealingly, but the production itself is a little slow and lacked a certain flicker of energy to keep the exploits of Mrs Malaprop and friends consistently sparkling.
Eighteenth-century sentimental comedies of manners are tricky things to revive nowadays as the very mannered, formalised society they portray and satirise almost seem to belong to another world. They also cannot fall back on the innuendo and bawdiness found in seventeenth-century works (if you find that kind of thing funny; I personally do not). The humour is gentle, rather than laugh-out-loud funny, the plots convoluted with lots of mistaken identities and misunderstandings and there are plenty of stock characters- a flighty ingénue and her lover, a ‘she-dragon’ of an aunt, a disapproving father, an outspoken Cockney valet and a naive country bumpkin. In sentimental comedy style, the emphasis is on talking about feelings, but moments of spontaneous emotion are rather rare (Sir Anthony Absolute’s outburst being the exception).
As the poor little rich girl Miss Lydia Languish, who is smitten with her lover Ensign Beverley as a penniless soldier but disappointed when he turns out to be the son of a baronet (played by a smooth-tongued Tam Williams). Robyn Addison (in her professional stage debut) plays her role with assurance, but not for laughs. Annabel Scholey is demure and poignant as her friend and foil Julia and Kieron Self gives an likeable performance as the harmless buffoon Bob Acres, who is completely out of his depth in fashionable society.
Unsurprisingly a great deal of the publicity surrounding the production has focused on the reunion of To The Manor Born (one of the most accomplished British sitcoms) co-stars Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in the roles of Lydia’s guardian Mrs Malaprop and Ensign Beverley/Captain Jack’s father Sir Anthony Absolute. Fortunately, both fit their roles perfectly. The ever formidable Ms Keith gives Mrs Malaprop a graceful dignity and whose misapplication of words (“The pineapple of politeness” receiving the biggest laugh) seem to stem from a desire to appear educated, in spite of her disapproval of women reading. Her purple gown is also absolutely splendid. Bowles, likewise, is excellent as the hero’s stern father, a role that does not come altogether naturally to him as he himself married for love.
This production provides a pleasant diversion, but I feel that it could have been a bit more than that if a little less stately and cautious. Underneath the affected politeness, there is a sense of mischief that is rather lacking here.