“Through all the drama — whether damned or not —Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot.”
The main beauty of Selina Cadell’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s evergreen The Rivals is her mastery of the Restoration form which sees no fourth wall separating players and punters. So on taking the stage, her actors acknowledge the audience in their own ways – awkward bows, tacit nods, arched eyebrows – and continue to address us throughout, an expositionary monologue here, an announcement of the scene’s location there, a gossipy aside everywhere. What really makes it work though is the warmth and wit with which the company fold us into its welcoming arms.
With a wicked glint in her eye and wryly pursed lips, an extravagantly dressed Gemma Jones ensures her Mrs Malaprop reaches the very pineapple of her comic potential and with no less captivating humour, Nicholas Le Prevost makes even the lewdest of Sir Anthony Absolute’s comments a hilarious part of his incorrigible charm. They have decided that her niece Lydia Languish and his son Captain Jack Absolute are an ideal match but young Lydia – an outrageous Jenny Rainsford who plays her on the edge of sanity to hugely entertaining effect – has her heart set on the romantic, and penniless, hero of her dreams.
Naturally, this man – Ensign Beverley – is Jack in disguise (a raffish Iain Batchelor who matches Rainsford for derring-do and commitment), aiming to woo her by stealth but in dealing with Mrs Malaprop’s misspoken morals and Sir Anthony’s paternal preferences, they all tie themselves in terrible knots. And this being high season in Bath, everyone is in some sort of a tizzy and Cadell manages to clearly define the multiple plot strands and engage us fully in them all in a brilliant first half that just flies by with verve and vigour.
That the play doesn’t quite sustain this across the lengthy running time isn’t too surprising, the second half lacks a little of the same propulsive energy as everything plays out but there’s always much to enjoy. Carl Prekopp doubling amusingly as a pair of manservants in the same scene, Hannah Stokely’s canny Lucy who controls so much of the romantic interplay as the well-paid go-between, Eliza Thompson’s musical direction which encourages the lightness of tone, and the clever simplicity of Emma Bailey’s pastel-hued historically inspired design.