Friday, 24 September 2010

The Rivals (Richmond Theatre)

It’s hard to imagine a safer, more traditional take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic warhorse The Rivals (1775) than Peter Hall’s new, Bath-originated production, which is currently at Richmond Theatre prior to a West End run later this year. But Hall’s conventional approach to Sheridan’s trifle of plots and proposals and spectacular verbal faux pas proves rather endearing; there's no distracting gimmickry here. A principal attraction of the production (for those of A Certain Age, at least) is its re-teaming of Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, reunited for the first time since the popular BBC sitcom To the Manor Born thirty years ago, and interacting enjoyably here as Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute. It’s a measure of the affection in which the pair is held that their first appearance on stage earned a round of applause from members of last night’s audience.

Hall’s production doesn’t reach the comic heights scaled earlier this year by Nicholas Hytner’s cheekier take on London Assurance at the National but it’s a classy, consistently amusing evening nonetheless, in which Simon Higlett's attractive set evokes Bath's public and private spaces with economical elegance. Keith and Bowles are good value, she adding a nice touch of dignity and, finally, poignancy to the character, along with sovereign comedic skills. The younger cast members, including newcomer Robyn Addison as Lydia, Tam Williams as Jack and Annabel Scholey as Julia, also acquit themselves well (Williams and Scholey both featured in Hall’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston earlier this year), and there's colourful support from Keiron Self as Bob Acres and  Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius O'Trigger. “He will penetrate my mystery,” declares Keith’s divine Mrs. M of the latter. There’s no mystery in Hall’s production, and no quirks or idiosyncrasies, either. But this is a solid Rivals that consistently satisfies and sometimes delights.

After Richmond, and prior to its West End residency,  the production is at Theatre Royal Norwich (Sept 17–Oct 2); Cambridge Arts Theatre (Oct 4–9); Theatre Royal Nottingham (Oct 12–16); Malvern Festival Theatre (Oct 25–30); and Chichester Festival Theatre (Nov 1–6).

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