By Richard Brinsley Sheridan Directed by Ken Blackburn Circa Theatre 29 July – 2 September
Lydia Languish is beautiful. She is also filthy rich. So, it’s not a surprise that almost every man in England (and some from even further away) want to marry her. Hilarity ensues (naturally).
The Rivals takes a snapshot of an extremely interesting time for literature: the novel had only begun to make an impact in England and was still being met by almost widespread distain. It is interesting to watch, from the position of a twenty first century high horse, characters such as Sir Anthony Absolute (Bruce Phillips) decrying female literacy haughtily, claiming that promiscuity “is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read” and that a “library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge!” It is also interesting because the nature of comedy as a dramatic art form was changing considerably. Comedy was moving from being ‘festive’ (usually signified by a wedding at the end) to being funny, what we expect today, and the play runs an interesting line between the two. Sheridan seems to know that the play must end happily but is almost unsure of how to go about it, the play concludes with a festive dance which to a modern audience was dated and curious. Luckily though for the audience, The Rivals is a font of comic humour.
The comic value of The Rivals stems from both the rather eccentric characters and the performers that give them life. Mrs Malaprop (played to the tee by Geraldine Brophy, if only some of the other characters would have performed with so much gusto) is the quintessential example of this with her malapropisms (Sheridan is responsible for bringing the malapropism into our cultural landscape) that rather than being silly and nonsensical, are expertly crafted to give ingenious unintended meanings to her every word. Unlike Brophy’s epic portrayal of Malaprop, the other performances are simply not hammed up enough. The play’s puppet master Lucy (played by a mischievous Lyndee Jane Rutherford) expertly engineers a complex web of deceit, not for any noble (read Shakespearian) motive such as finding the perfect husband for her mistress Lydia but to unscrupulously make a quick buck out of the foolish suitors. She drives the plot and steals the show, opening and closing the house fronts at the wings of the stage to reveal the houses of characters to give the audience an interesting change to interior settings. These two powerful women guide the plot and drive the comedy. Lydia is played by the truly loveable Sarah Somerville, whose character lives up to a very girlish stereotype, it isn’t hard to see why all the men swoon for her. She is joined by her confidant Julia Melville (Narelle Ahrens) who is a little bit more savvy than her and devoted to Faulkland (Stephen Butterworth) an anal retentive, camp young dandy.
Like those of Faulkland and the women, the male characters are a set of fun stereotypical snapshots of Sheridan’s Bath. They are all well cast and well acted, although a little life could have been injected into some of them at times. We have the loveable Captain Jack Ward (played by Aaron Ward) a dapper upperclass gentleman come soldier who takes on the guise of an underling to win Lydia’s affection (she really wants to upset her family you see) and his father Sir Anthony (Bruce Phillips) a haughty, museum piece who is suffering from the gout. Moving down through the classes we have the dastardly Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Gerald Bryan), a middle aged, lecherous Irishman who Malaprop loves desperately (while he is trying to get it off with her niece Lydia) who is the closest thing The Rivals comes to a villain, the and the wet behind the ears Bob Acres (Nick Blake), another suitor who is trying to become one of the upper class through marriage in spite of his acute lack of upper-class sensibilities. At the bottom of the rung we have Fag (Julian Wilson), Jacks chaotic manservant who, although a little too camp, is one of the play’s most engaging characters and Thomas (Philip Grieve), Bob’s large and loveable coachman who in a risky, but comically successful device, destroys every single one of his lines through his accent.
At over two and a half hours long The Rivals pace is amazingly quick. It is a wickedly frivolous play that gives the audience nothing serious to think about and a good night out. In other words: if nothing else, it’s fun.