It seems apt that in the Bristol Old Vic’s landmark 250th year they have chosen to revive a play first performed less than a decade after they opened their doors, not to mention one that is set in the nearby city of Bath. Although Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first and best loved play was not initially met with universal acclaim, The Rivals remains one of his most enduring works and offers an amusing glimpse into the playwright’s own romances and intrigues.
The fact that the Bristol Old Vic is currently undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment, forcing the audience to enter the theatre via the Stage Door, only adds to the behind-the-scenes atmosphere that continues on stage, with Tom Rogers’ set design taking inspiration from a theatrical costume department and scenes cleverly and swiftly changed thanks to an array of printed backdrops illustrating the Georgian playground of Bath; a veritable breeding ground of courtship back in the 18th century.
Directed by Dominic Hill and co-produced by Liverpool Everyman and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (of which he is Artistic Director), Hill has also recently staged The Libertine, based on the life and times of the Earl of Rochester, so should be comfortable in making another foray into the period without the need for bizarre attempts to make the characters feel more relevant. I for one can’t see what was gained from including, alongside the 1775-style wigs, corsets and rouge, various nods to modernity such as sunglasses, an e-cigarette and a polaroid camera.
This theme is taken one step further by a Made in Chelsea turn by Lucy Briggs-Owen as the dim-witted young heiress Lydia Languish who is on a romantic suicide mission to forgo her fortune and marry a poor man for love. Convinced that she is besotted with a humble soldier, who is in fact the extremely wealthy Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch), from repeatedly hitching up her bust to fluttering her false eyelashes and allowing her mouth to fall gormlessly open, Briggs-Owen is nothing if not over-the-top here and utilises an irritating teenagerish drawl for the duration, thereby making the humour more pantomime than it really should be. One can’t help but feel exhausted on watching her, not to mention a huge sense of relief whenever she exits stage left. She steals the show, yes, but not necessarily in a good way.
Her aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Julie Legrand), is meanwhile the ugly sister in this farce, determined for Lydia to make a fortuitous match and who falls hook, line and sinker for Captain Absolute’s charade of pretending to her niece that he is without means. While Legrand (who took over from the originally announced Maggie Steed) is a safe pair of hands in the role, she won’t be particularly memorable either and fails to do full justice to the ‘malapropisms’ for which the play is most famed. Instead, the characters who most delight are the ones you might least expect; Captain Jack’s father Sir Anthony Absolute (Desmond Barrit) who believes that he has masterminded the match between his son and Lydia (little realising that the pair were already involved) and Captain Jack’s insecure comrade Faulkland, equally well played by Nicholas Bishop, who tortures his beloved Lucy (Lily Donovan) by challenging her constancy and accusing her of being too jovial and content in his absence.
The Rivals might be filled with hilarious characters and delicious contrivances and plots, yet in the end this confused production lacks integrity and tries too hard to update Sheridan’s timeless mastery. Left feeling deflated at the indecisiveness of a revival neither entirely faithful nor brave enough to bring the play kicking and screaming into the 21st century, if one can’t have a scorchingly hot new interpretation or the true Sheridan perhaps one ought to stay home and watch Made in Chelsea.
The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic until 1st October 2016. Production images by Mark Douet. For more information and tickets please visit the website.