first night

The Rivals

Donnchadh O'Connail has mixed feelings about RB Sheridan's Restoration comedy.

Everyone, surely, loves the idea of Restoration comedy: romance and intrigue, tears and laughter, and all dressed in the finest waistcoats and frocks. The Rivals by RB Sheridan offers all of these basic themes – a young lover (Captian Jack Absolute) passes himself off as someone else to woo Miss Lydia Languish; his father Sir Anthony, and her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, stick their noses in; various duels are organised based on misunderstandings; and everyone ends up happily paired off – but it also slyly subverts them. For example, Lydia, obsessed by romantic fiction, is put out when it turns out that Captain Jack is not going to elope with her (a move which, as he is keenly aware, would forfeit most of her considerable dowry). There was plenty to whet the appetite upon entering the Great Hall. As for the production itself – well, it was certainly one of the best-dressed shows I’ve seen in Durham. Whether it had anywhere to go is more debatable.


I should stress at once that it wasn’t just the clothes which looked splendid. The set was both creative and striking: within a self-contained wooden structure, a room was enclosed on all sides, with two wooden panels which were pulled back to reveal it to the audience and slid into place to provide the backdrop for outdoor scenes. The design of the room itself was very fetching, with handsome period furniture which dovetailed nicely with the sumptuous costumes. However, I felt the set was dramatically somewhat misguided. All of the indoor action took place in the room, which was so small that the actors were often unable to use onstage movement to the best advantage. This was particularly evident during the scene when Captain Jack is formally introduced to Lydia; the actors did not have enough space to move laterally or to go up or downstage, resulting in a cramped presentation and flat exchanges. All of the cast suffered from this to some degree, but Niamh Murphy (Mrs. Malaprop) would have benefited the most from being allowed to move around more and dominate scenes which are, after all, staged in her house. As it was, while she delivered her famous lines with plenty of brio, they did not work as they ought because, theatrically speaking, they never felt like the focus of proceedings. More generally, the set meant that scenes tended to be static and repetitive, each one starting and ending the same way. This was particularly a problem when one takes into account the lengthy running time (close to three hours, including an interval). On balance I felt that Bobbi Nicholson might have been better advised to sacrifice the period detail of the set to achieve more fluidity in the staging.


The absence of the latter helps account for the fact that while I felt that the production was not successful as a whole, most of the leads gave good or better than good performances. The broadest comedy was provided by Harry Bresslaw (Bob Acres) and Gareth Davies (Sir Anthony Absolute). Bresslaw cruised through his part, giving the country bumpkin enough vulnerability to make both his vanity and his lack of confidence consistently amusing. Davies played his over-the-top part in an over-the-top style, which occasionally led to him losing control of Sir Anthony’s more ridiculous tirades. However, I felt he settled into the part more in the second half, as did a number of the other players (the most telling instance of this being that it was quite hard to hear certain lines and occasionally whole speeches during the first half, but after the interval the cast’s diction seemed to improve notably).


At the polar opposite in terms of style was Clare Reavey, who started a little slowly but blossomed splendidly. Julia Melville is little more than a stereotypical wronged woman, but Reavey managed to convey tremendous feeling in her role, particularly in her last scene with Faulkland before their ultimate reconciliation. Joseph Burke, playing opposite her, was a little less sure-footed; he too rarely found the right mixture of stiffness and suspicion, so his Faulkland was only occasionally the comic prig the script requires. Likewise, Felix Stevenson as Sir Lucius O’Trigger, ever anxious to make his next duel, had not yet mastered his part. He had some difficulty with the accent, but more importantly I was never quite sure how ridiculously or seriously he was meant to come across, and this difficulty with his tone meant he never quite found a groove in any of his scenes.


One of the more successful aspects of the production was in the casting of its leads. Callum Cheatle (Captain Jack) pitched his romantic hero just about right; upright without being too stiff, smooth but never oily. Anna Bailey had Lydia’s coy manner down to a tee, with crisp timing and a delightful ability to make each pout seem different to the last. Curiously though, and in keeping with much of the show, their scenes together never really took flight. Each was capable of reaching a certain level, but they were not capable of together rising any higher. One had the curious sensation of watching two adroit performances running in parallel rather than interlocking. This was a problem repeated throughout a production which boiled too many capable actors into too few memorable scenes. As a result, I fear it must go down as a missed opportunity.



4 November 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC