Review – Sheridan’s The Rivals At The Playhouse

DIRECTOR Dominic Hill gave us a good view of the backstage workings of the Playhouse in his 2013 Crime and Punishment, and he begins this new staging of Sheridan’s 18th century comedy with a similarly bare stage, soon to be filled with the various elements of Tom Roger’s evocative set. Everything about this production, including the chairs, is like a series of picture frames; an art gallery being constantly hung and re-hung with vividly lit tableaux. The performers in lavish costumes are directed in a way that turns every scene into a stunning visual image. Amidst the period garb and enormous wigs, Hill throws in some witty anachronisms with the props to remind us that the misogyny of the story is not as dated as it might at first appear. But the show is not solely a treat for the eyes. As Mrs Malaprop might say, the text and its delivery are the very pineapple of perfection. The entire cast have enormous fun with their lines, tripping out the sharp wit of this comedy of manners at a rattling pace. Desmond Barritt as Sir Anthony Absolute tries to persuade his son Jack (Rhys Rusbatch) that he must marry a wealthy young lady chosen for him in order to lay hands on her fortune, whether he cares for her or not. “If you have an estate you must take it with the livestock as it stands” he is told. What neither know is that the chosen woman is the girl Jack is secretly wooing, Lydia Languish, disguising himself as a poor serviceman, Ensign Beverley. When this becomes clear he goes on to regain his father’s favour by pretending that he will consent to marry purely to appease him. The plot is filled with all the deceptions and intrigues of the genre, and the writing is generous with opportunities for all Sheridan’s characters to revel in its telling. The entire ensemble produce splendid performances, but highlights must be Julie Legrand’s wilting Mrs Malaprop, with all her vocal confusions, and Desmond Barritt’s pompous Sir Anthony. The real show-stealer is Lucy Briggs Owen, whose Lydia Languish lilts and swoons about the stage, arms flapping and hands fluttering, like something out of Ab-Fab or Made in Chelsea, with the vocal characterisation to match. Atmosphere is completed with splendidly done lighting from Howard Hudson and subtle music played on a harpsichord placed to the rear of the stage. Despite its vintage text and period setting, The Rivals feels bang up to date in Hill’s light handed, fleet of foot presentation, which is full of laughter but still packs a punchy message. The Rivals runs at the Playhouse until Saturday 29th October. Review by Nigel Smith