Review: The Rivals

Date: 08/10/2016

What might you get if you crossed Blackadder III with a dash of bedroom farce and a wallop of Millennial entitlement? This perfectly-formed co-production of The Rivals at the Playhouse might come close.

It’s always said to be a comedy of manners, but it’s affairs of the heart – or rather the loins – that fuel The Rivals, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century proto-farce. The Rivals’ characters are often in love with one another, though they don’t always know it or aren’t even sure of it. It makes for delicious misunderstandings, confrontations and anguished conversations, often punctuated with the pompous and nonsensical malapropisms of the definite article.

Sheridan’s work is rarely spotted these days – much like the farces of Ayckbourn and Frayn. Perhaps theatres fear its florid text and precise etiquettes are too much for a modern audience. Its plot takes some untangling and requires some attention: aspiring romantic Lydia Languish is in love with Ensign Beverley, an officer who has wooed her with promises of elopement and poverty, though he is really the wealthy son of a toff.

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Lydia also has two additional suitors – the bumptious Bob Acres and raffish Irish duellist Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The latter thinks he has been swapping amorous letters with Lydia, in fact he has been swapping the 18th-Century version of booty calls with her guardian, Mrs Malaprop. Meanwhile Jack’s father and the misspeaking spinster’s suitor, Sir Anthony Absolute, has arranged a marriage between Jack and Lydia. Lydia, having eyes only for Ensign Beverley – and unaware they are one and the same person – is appalled. Keeping up?

It might have been tempting to set The Rivals in an updated idiom of chatrooms and Tinder and Instagram. It makes for a grisly notion. This new production, under director Dominic Hill, makes just one meaningful attempt to reimagine Sheridan’s play, by making aspiring romantic Lydia Languish into the sort of entitled brat that might have sprung from a BBC Three sitcom.

With her rising intonation, expressions of disgust and jaw-jutting reactions, Lucy Briggs-Owen makes Lydia a thoroughly modern Millennial. Allowing her to steal every scene she’s in, the excellent cast perform their roles just as they might have been in 1775.

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Desmond Barrit as a bawdy, pompous but twinkling Sir Anthony Absolute gets some choice moments – and alarmingly misogynistic asides that are lapped up by the audience, while Lee Mengo’s Bob Acres is a bubbling pot of puffed-up energy who might have walked in from Under Milk Wood. Julie Legrand is perfect as a shrieking Mrs Malaprop and Keith Dunphy makes more of Sir Lucius O’Trigger than might otherwise have been the case.

A subplot revolving around the jealous, insecure Faulkland and long-suffering Julia has the power to slow proceedings, but it’s all brought off as lightly as it can be, despite the fact that it’s a fairly obvious B-plot.

With a running time of 150 minutes The Rivals could have felt like hard work. But displaying a lightness and pace – and in updating this aged text while remaining true to it – this latest production of Sheridan’s play is the very pineapple of perfection.

The Rivals
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 29 October