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The School for Scandal – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Director: Tinuke Craig

Who doesn’t like a good bit of gossip? The sort of snippet of information that makes you feel as though you’ve learnt something that maybe others don’t know, and if it’s not true – well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. And even if we don’t consider ourselves gossip-mongers, by being told these things we make ourselves complicit in the process anyway.

So we begin this heavily edited and embellished production of The School for Scandal with some gossip – not eighteenth-century gossip as you might have found in the original script. No, it’s a prologue containing some very recent political gossip, around House of Lords appointments and possible superinjunctions, and about a certain Baroness M and her dealings.

This sets the tone for a production that, although 250 years old, feels absolutely current and relevant today, with snippets of additional or changed dialogue running throughout, bringing the piece bang up to date. Costumes are a modern take on period dress – this is a time when hairstyles are big, and dresses are bigger – and, reflecting the nature of the character or their feelings at any time, they’re all in gold, black or pink, a shocking, bright pink. This is a play about rumour-mills and salaciousness after all. Characters appear from below, already posed and ready, thanks to the clever use of three lifts on the stage, which allows the minimal set to appear and disappear quickly. Couches, even a large fountain rise from the depths and sink back when they’re finished with—some outstanding work here by set and costume designer Alex Lowde.

The story has many convolutions and twists and the characters are numerous but in brief it involves Sir Oliver Surface, long absent in India, trying to decide which of his two nephews to leave his fortune to – apparently upright, kind and sensible Joseph or profligate and debauched spendthrift Charles. He decides to test each one’s character, visiting them in disguise, to help him decide. Both nephews are in love with Maria, ward of Sir Peter Teazle and heiress to his fortune – but Sir Peter has other worries too, as he is constantly arguing with his much younger wife and fears that she is having an affair. Meanwhile, Lady Sneerwell and her servant Snake spread gossip to muddy the waters still further.

Attention to detail is everywhere, and characters each have their individual trait, their little something that gives them an individuality and the quality of the cast shines throughout – and whether it’s an aside to the audience, a modern reference, a mannerism, a gesture or an expression, it all works to create something that is very, very funny. Siubhan Harrison’s Lady Sneerwell wears a dress so wide that every movement forces her to scuttle sideways like a crab, while her confidante Mrs Candour (Emily Houghton) delivers a superb line in facial expressions alongside conversation delivered rapidly lest she overlook some important snippet of news. Tadeo Martinez is a scheming and conniving Snake, happily spreading gossip and not overly worried about whom it concerns.

Tara Tijani is a self-centred Lady Teazle, all big hair and looking for fun, and Patrick Walshe McBride makes the most of a relatively small role as a mincing and pouting Sir Benjamin Backbite. John Leader and Stefan Adegbola both give good value as the Surface brothers, with Leader’s Charles, apparently decadent and frivolous – and broke, leaping onto a fountain and drinking wine from the bottle with his friends, determined to tease his serious visitors. Adegbola’s Joseph is a marked contrast, so determined to expound and moralise that he gets his own light every time he starts, creating a nice running gag through the piece.

Contrasting nicely with all the extravagance and exuberance there’s an excellent performance from Geoffrey Streatfeild as Sir Peter Teazle, straightforward and honest with everyday worries that sit above the chatter and gossip around him, with Yasemin Özdemir as an apparently demure Maria, dressed in simple innocent white among the gaudiness around her, until she makes her mark with her epilogue. Moment of the night has to sit with Lappet (Jessica Alade) though, Joseph’s much-maligned servant, whose resignation from his employment brings the house down.

Once in a while, you find a production where every tiny detail gels together to create something wonderful – and The School for Scandal is the result. The way we consume our news and gossip may have changed over the years, but it’s still there and seemingly will be, in some form or other, for a long time to come.

Runs until 6 September 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Scandalously funny

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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