Writer: Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Director: Dominic Hill
Reviewer: R G Balgray
Difficulties abound in approaching Georgian drama without preconceptions: those powdered wigs, and convoluted manners, as the age of wit and decorum awaits the tsunami of cultural and social changes brought forth by the 19th Century. And The Rivals is firmly of its age too – locked in a distant past, nowadays usually only footnoted for spawning the term Malapropism.
However, in this Citizens co-production revival (with Bristol Old Vic and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse) fresh new life is breathed into Sheridan’s classic play. In the process, some hilarious modern parallels emerge; not least of these making the link between literary comedies of manners and “reality” TV shows. Chiefly responsible for this, as the play’s heroine Lydia Languish, is Lucy Briggs-Owen: once tuned in to her cut-glass tones (the glass, it seems, still involved in the cutting process), she turns in a jaw-dropping performance, face-pulling and piling up mannerisms and tics familiar to those of us who goggle at the latest inhabitants of that Celebrity Big Brother in the Jungle human zoo. A character who could truly be described as awaiting the invention of chewing gum, she makes it clear that underneath that powdered wig lurks a head full – of fresh air. Against such a magnificent grotesque, all the other characters get the chance to shine: Rhys Rusbatch as Jack, her love interest, runs a commentary with the audience showing off his manipulative skills, eventually outwitting even himself. Jessica Hardwick and Nicholas Bishop, as Julia and Faulkland – the “sincere” contrasting romantic pairing – exploit to the hilt the stereotype twists and turns that young love can take.
In addition, one of the delights of the production is its “non-PC” aspect (which Sheridan himself had to edit carefully in early productions), so that many of the minor characters are allowed full rein in exhibiting their excesses – from the language-mangling Mrs Malaprop (Julie Legrand) to cod-Irish Lucius O’Trigger (Keith Dunphy). It might also be difficult for members of the audience to forget how Desmond Barrit’s Sir Anthony morphs from choleric parent into aged roue with designs on Mrs Malaprop (nor the polaroid picture prop – but that is another story).
There is more, though, to this production. At many points, the dialogue simply crackles with wit, and much thought has gone into the clever set design. Sophisticated use of framing structures complement the seeming informality of the dressing room; while the frames mirror the Chinese boxes of the plot structure, they also represent the self-conscious posing and vanity of those self-regarding days. While also highlighting the high production values and distinctive “house style” emerging from the Citizens in the last few seasons. So what seems like a witty, energetic romp has, on a closer look, its own depths and a message for our own times. An art that conceals art, indeed.
Runs until 19 November 2016 | Image: Mark Douet