Robert Tanitch reviews The Rivals at Arcola Theatre, E8
The director Selina Cadell, in a programme note, says she loves Restoration Comedy. This does not inspire much confidence. Restoration Comedy ended in 1700 with William Congreve’s The Way of the World.
The Rivals, which premiered in 1775, is an 18th century comedy and in quite a different style. It is set in Bath, not London, for a start, and gently mocks sentimentality which was so popular with the public then.
Lydia Languish, a silly romantic girl, expects to be treated like a heroine in a romantic novel. Her beau, Captain Absolute, obliges by wooing her in the disguise of a penniless ensign and plans an elopement. (Sheridan famously eloped with Elizabeth Linley, a singer, when he was 22 and caused a scandal.)
Lydia’s immediate reaction on discovering that rivals are one and the same person is outrage. She had been looking forward to an elopement! She doesn’t want to marry somebody her aunt (the famous Mrs Malaprop) actually approves of and to be in a church and hear herself described as a spinster.
The scenes which work best are those between Jack Absolute and his father. The funniest dialogue is when the father (Nicholas Le Provost) is drooling over the heroine’s cheeks, eyes, lips and neck whilst his son (Iain Batchelor) is affecting total indifference.
The audience always presumes that Mrs Malaprop (“Queen of the dictionary”) uses the wrong word every time; but that is not necessarily true. Gemma Jones, no weather-beaten she-dragon, very sensibly, is blissfully unaware that she is using any word wrongly, never emphasises the malapropisms, and just chatters away quite normally.
It is a pity that the actress who plays Lydia should be so miscast and have a terrible wig. It is also a pity that Cadell should encourage the actors to engage so directly with the audience, over and beyond the normal asides.