I saw Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London on Saturday, as I mentioned I would, and it was very, very good. To be honest, although the acting was great, I think it would be difficult to do the play badly. It might be up there with The Importance of Being Earnest of an actor-proof play, out of which even the most amateur of groups could wring many laughs.
Even if you think you know nothing about this play, chances are you do – for it is from The Rivals, and more precisely the character Mrs. Malaprop, that we get the malapropism. This maiden aunt (played on Saturday by the incredibly wonderful Penelope Keith, one of my heroines) speaks with ‘words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced’ – leading to all kinds of amusing mishaps, which have little impact on the plot, but are richly enjoyable. For example: ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’; ‘Promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory’ and so on and so forth.
Although it is Mrs. Malaprop whose fame has lived longest, The Rivals is really mostly concerned with the complex love polygon (for triangle would be too simple) taking place with almost every character on stage. Chief amongst them is Captain Jack Absolute (played with saucy and energetic panache by Tam Williams) and Lydia Languish. They love each other, but he is under an assumed name, since she considers love more romantic if with one from another caste (shades of Love on the Supertax here?) His father (Peter Bowles, making a To The Manor Born reunion which made my little dreams come true) has arranged with Mrs. Malaprop (Lydia’s aunt) for the two to be married – but Lydia doesn’t know they are one and the same. All very confusing, and that’s just for starters. It’s all the most wonderful tangled web, of the variety beloved by late-18th century playwrights and P.G. Wodehouse alike. And that’s not even mentioning the less important characters, all of whom are embroiled somehow.
It’s such a fun play, and plotted so skillfully. Laughter rang throughout the theatre – which was shamefully nowhere near full, but that does mean you might still be able to secure tickets before it closes on 26th February. I agree with everything Charles Spencer says in his Telegraph review, from compliments about Simon Higlett’s beautiful set design, to Spencer’s relief that they haven’t tried to make the play ‘relevant’ by needlessly updating or meddling with it. I love that a play from 1775 can still cause such joy and levity – and the chance to see Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles reunited was a delightful added bonus. I’d love to see more Sheridan plays now, especially School for Scandal… I wrote on these for finals back in 2007, but they have drifted from my mind.
If only the theatre weren’t so hideously expensive…