The Rivals

Theatre, Off-West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Gemma Jones stars in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic Renaissance comedy in this new production from Selina Cadell.

Nicholas Le Prevost could probably read out an eighteenth-century shopping list and make it side-splittingly funny. So give him Richard Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners, ‘The Rivals’, to chew on and you’re in for a very enjoyable ride. His bluster and twinkly-eyed irreverence are a hoot here.

This is a deliciously absurd play, packed with ridiculous intrigues. Le Prevost is Sir Anthony Absolute, whose son, Captain Jack, schemes to win Lydia Languish’s affections by becoming his own ‘rival’ – he conjures a second identity (a lowly ensign in the British army) to dupe her interfering aunt, Mrs Malaprop.

The delight of Selina Cadell’s revival is how appropriately not-seriously it takes all of this. Just as Sheridan knowingly and roundly lampoons the crap romantic fiction filling booksellers at the time, this production gleefully breaks the fourth wall with a wink and a nudge.

Against a backdrop of Bath that fittingly looks like a period illustration, the cast dump their hats and cloaks in the audience and address us as much as each other. Jenny Rainsford lights up the stage as Lydia, sighing and twirling in hilariously affected passion.

The production soars whenever Rainsford, Iain Batchelor’s sly Captain Jack, Gemma Jones’s language-mangling Mrs Malaprop and Le Prevost’s irresistibly incorrigible Sir Anthony appear together. They capture Sheridan’s spirit of playful mockery.

Not all of the cast make it look so effortless, though, and the sprawl of characters and subplots sometimes drags over the play’s three-hour running time. But when it really hits its stride after the interval, this is a blast. It’ll send you out into the night with a silly smile on your face.

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