As Bristol Old Vic continue their 250th anniversary celebrations, for which plays from each century of BOV’s existence are rediscovered, it’s fitting that they should launch their autumn/winter programme with a play that is as quirky, old and gobsmackingly beautiful as the theatre itself.
Produced by Dominic Hill, The Rivals takes us back to 1775, a period of extravagance and decadence (for the few, admittedly). The impoverished-upon-dying but posthumously rediscovered and respected writer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, critiqued the society that surrounded him, setting his perhaps best known work in nearby Bath, a fashionable city that he had come to know well – with its splendid example of Georgian architecture in the Royal Crescent, where else?
In The Rivals, Sheridan exposed the folly of people who are out to deceive each other, ridiculed the need to be seen as cleverer than we really are, mocked the innate hypocrisy and false imaginings of all of us. Lydia Languish (Lucy Briggs-Owen) is a wealthy heiress whose true (naive?) wish is to marry a penniless man, supplied by one ‘Ensign Beverley’, who is actually the equally wealthy and high-born Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch). He has tricked her into believing that he is impoverished in order to win her heart. And wouldn’t-you-know-it that Jack’s father, Sir Anthony (Desmond Barrit) is conspiring with Lydia’s guardian, Mrs Malaprop (Julie Legrand) to get the pair together? Cue sneaking around, lies and a whole lot of confusion as Jack tries to convince his father that he has never met Lydia and he will only marry her out of duty and respect for Sir Anthony’s wishes. The bafflement is exacerbated by Jack’s pal, Faulkland (Nicholas Bishop) in his insanely jealous love for the loyal Julia (Jessica Hardwick), good friend to Lydia, and the notes passing between Mrs Malaprop and one Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Keith Dunphy), both being played for fools by the twinkle-eyed entrepreneurial maid Lucy (Lily Donovan).
The Rivals is an over-too-quickly (but almost 3 hours long, with interval) romp of intrigue, lyrical genius and a huge dollop of comedy. Sheridan’s language flows sweetly, his words wrapping themselves around every ear, as the cast delivers with self-assured glee, clearly loving every moment. Mrs Malaprop entered long ago into the English Dictionary as ‘malapropism’ or the use of words that sound like others but completely change the meaning of a sentence (i.e., they are wrong), such as “… she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.” or ”I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small.” Legrand pronounces these mis-words with relish and she is magnificently over-the-top in the role of a woman who so much wants to be seen to be at the pinnacle (or ‘pineapple’) of sophistication and intelligence.
And, imagine if you will, a young woman with a blond hair-do that is twice the length of her head. A stroppy teenager who is adept at playing it her way, who elongates her words like a child belonging to our very own Gen Z, who has that look of exasperation at the slightest provocation in an ‘OMG, I can’t belieeeeve this is, like, happening’ sort of a way. And you have the extremely funny, show-stealer Lucy Briggs-Owen, an actor that the audience adores as she has the whole auditorium in raptures with only the merest arch of her eyebrows, the slightest utterance.
Apart from when we were actually sitting on the stage as the audience-jury of The Crucible last year, I think this is the most that I’ve ever seen of the Old Vic’s stage. Designer Tom Rogers has pulled back the edges so that you really get a sense of the height of the place; the lighting rigs form part of a set that is über-opulent and as rich in colour and flourish as the script itself. Intricately hand painted cloths interweave with grandiose costumes and outrageous wigs so that the overall effect is one of absolute grandeur.
Beauty, all-round talent and a top-notch venue ensure that this is a stompingly fun evening out that resonates as much with a 21st Century audience as it must have with theatre-goers back in Sheridan’s day.
The Rivals shows at Bristol Old Vic until 1st October
Image by Mark Douet, with thanks