As Jane Austen showed, Regency Bath with its petty snobberies and bored, gouty bourgeoise was ripe for satirical picking. Richard Sheridan takes Austen’s gentle satire and cranks it up to 11, poking fun at the newly wealthy middle classes and minor aristocrats in The Rivals, a play brimming with playfulness of language and cocky bravado. The Arcola Theatre’s revival of it is every bit as fun as it should be, brightening up a filthy afternoon in Dalston (no easy feat).
Upper class Lydia Languish’s (Jenny Rainsford) head is full of romantic novels and longs to suffer for love like the heroines in the books she borrows from the circulating library (“vile places indeed!”). Happily for Lydia she falls in love with a man she believes to be an impoverished officer, who goes by the hugely unromantic name of Ensign Beverley, who she is plotting to elope with.
Of course her posh relations, of which she only seems to have one, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (yes, her of using words in the wrong context fame) really won’t stand for her niece gallivanting off with a lowly red coat. In reality, Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) actually has nothing to worry about as Beverley is actually the far richer – and much more plausibly named – Jack Absolute – who is having an absolute ball teasing his beloved with his great ruse (remember, these are the days before Pointless).
Jack’s wheeze hits a major stumbling block when his rather severe father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost), informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him. Furious, Jack quarrels with his father before learning that he’s fated to be married to none other than… yes, Lydia Languish. Well I never!
But how will he get round the slippery problem of Lydia loving his poorer alter ego? And there’s also the problem of another real life rival, the rather boarish Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who is determined to see off this upstart Beverley. Cue plenty of farcical mix-ups that encompass their small society including the romantically jealous Faulkland and his exasperated fiancee Julia, impoverished Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and several servants including Lucy who stirs the misunderstandings up to a roiling boil.
The story is delightfully and brilliantly daft, Sheridan’s genuinely funny script sends up 18th century society like a Jane Austen after a bottle of Port. As sparkling witty as Sheridan’s script is though, this play needs fine comic actors to pull it off, any hint of self-consciousness would render The Rivals toe-curling embarrassing to watch. The cast in Selina Cadell’s production tackle the story with bravado, pulling out the humour with some brilliantly judged campness and arch-knowingness. Gemma Jones (Spooks’ evil Connie) has fun with a pink-haired Mrs Malaprop and Jenny Rainsford is dramatically pouty mouthed as the spoilt Lydia. Justine Mitchell impresses as Julia who must convince her silly fiancé that she does love him with many flowery speeches. Iain Batchelor is an exuberant Jack Absolute brimming with cheeky charm and a convincing cockiness. You want to cheer when all’s well that ends well. Which of course it is.
The Rivals is on until 15th November at the Arcola Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.arcolatheatre.com.
by Suzanne Elliott