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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE RIVALS
at Theatre Royal Haymarket

DUELING LOVERS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Along with Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and Priestley’s When We Are Married, this is the third well-made play to open in the West End in as many weeks. This is a rare thing in an age where musicals have taken root in London like Japanese knotweed and producers generally view well-made plays as a form of theatre most likely to carry the highest financial risk. 
 
Not that Sheridan’s 1775 comedy was particularly well made when he first presented it to the public. At four hours it had to be significantly cut and modified before it became part of the regularly revived canon. 
 
Though its pleasures are particular to Sheridan, its comedy owes much to Shakespeare. Set in the fashionable resort of Bath, the action in Peter Hall’s production takes place within a courtyard embraced by the city’s imposing Nash townhouses whose stylish facades are recreated here by designer Simon Higglett. The story features a duel a la Twelfth Night and, more Shakespearean still, an absurd plot that orbits the fate of two couples, though focusing chiefly on heiress Lydia Languish (Robyn Addison), who has been brainwashed by romantic literature, and dashing Captain Jack Absolute (Tam Williams), who has been courting her under another name. Endless confusions ensue when Absolute’s father, Sir Anthony, and Languish’s guardian, Mrs Malaprop, agree that Jack and Lydia should marry. 
 
The play's title refers to Lydia’s multiple suitors, including Sir Lucius O’Trigger (a boar-like Gerard Murphy), who believes that he is conducting an epistolary relationship with the girl when in fact it is with Malaprop. Next in line is country squire Bob Acres (Kieran Self), who is equally deluded about his chances of marrying the richest and therefore most eligible girl in town. 
 
Malaprop, it will be remembered, is a bilingual speaker of both English and gibberish who transposes correct words with similar-sounding incorrect alternatives, which is how we come to know that Lydia is as "headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." 
 
Penelope Keith is endearingly oblivious in the role, until suffering Malaprop’s serial rejections – a humiliation almost as cruel as that suffered by Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Thank god, then, for Peter Bowles’ Sir Anthony, who deploys some protective English chivalry to save some, if not all of, her blushes. 
 
Yet it is much further down the billing where we find the most rewarding performances – below Bowles and Keith, past the pretty and dimpled charms of Adisson’s Languish and Williams’ Captain Jack, without pausing at Self’s overdone buffoonery as the landed but not so gentry Bob Acres, all the way to Annabel Scholey and especially Tony Gardner. They play the subplot duo of Faulkland and Julia, a relationship in permanent crisis because of Faulkland’s compulsive inability to accept at face value anything that is obviously good. 
 
Apart from Malaprop’s moment of vulnerability, the two are the only people here whose fate we care about. In every other respect, Hall, who recently turned 80, delivers a faultless production. The diction is crystal clear and the pace is perfect. But the evening holds few surprises, and without the particular resonance that the production must have had when it appeared at Bath’s Theatre Royal earlier this year, this Rival comes third out of the three well-made plays currently in London. 
 


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