by Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan (1775)
A minimalist and ingenious setting which used a passage through the
audience as well as a traditional-ish stage was the setting for the
witty and acerbic dialogue of the Irishman who later became Foreign
Secretary under the noxious George III and then died, disappointed,
Many see eighteenth-century theatre as a cultural desert between the
Jacobean nasties, the ephemeral Restoration comedies and the age of
Wilde, Synge and Shaw (all Irish again, curiously) in late Victorian
times. This is not entirely accurate – as witness the works of
William Congreve, Sir John (he designed Castle Howard) Vanburgh and,
later in the century, Sheridan's output, of which The Rivals
is arguably the masterpiece.
Sheridan was a shrewd observer of the foibles of his time, and mercilessly
sent up the more pretentious and less savoury social niceties of late
Georgian England. Unfortunately, many of these behaviours can still
be seen today, which is another reason this play deserves more frequent
performances, apart from the fact that it is great fun to watch. The
plot is based around a fairly stock love-romance-action-deception scenario
with a duel tacked on, and this production picked up on all these different
aspects of the piece.
Period feel …
After a slow start the audience was soon responding to the visual and
spoken gags, including the famous malapropisms, which Dora Bryan and
Hylda Baker would later make their own. There was some good individual,
idiomatic and sometimes hilarious characterisation from the cast, though
the occasional lack of clarity (despite a wonderful Irish accent!) and
slackness in pace lessened the overall tension now and then. More kerchief-waving
and beauty marks (but not too much) would have put icing onto the cake.
… from men …
There was some very stylish playing - none of it overtly derivative,
either - from the men. The quarrelsome Sir Anthony Absolute (Jim "What
the devil is going on NOW?' Bowman) and his wayward son Jack
(Jerome "Cheshire Life's favourite centrefold'
Burch) gave mature, robust and vivid portrayals of the difficulties
of family life, though I expected a little more physical domestic violence
(the' Cheshire Life' quotation was in the programme,
but Absolute's line is Sheridan's). It's a very non-PC
play anyway, thankfully, and I gather Jack's actual costume was
some 200 years old, so hardly suited for beatings.
Alex Jones' performance as the foppish Faulkland was one of the
most striking and convincing I have seen from a non-professional actor
in many years. His face, words, his whole body were subsumed into the
character, and his excellent diction belied the fact that he is a first-year
management student who had never acted before.
… and women
The ‘fairer sex', as Sheridan would have put it, worked
extremely hard, too, ranging from the coquettish through priggishness
and vanity towards slagdom. The scene in Act V, where Faulkland and
Julia (Siobhan Doyle) discuss their love, was as beautifully tender
as it was controlled. Also stunning was Sarah de Block as Lydia Languish.
Again, excellent diction, beautiful phrasing – all the more surprising
is that she is French, and English her second language. That is a fine
and extraordinary achievement.
In all, a remarkable production from Director Greg Smith, who is but
one among some very able young men and women whom I believe and hope
will go far on whichever stage they choose. They will certainly make
good teachers (though perish that thought) and excellent managers –
but it's all the same thing really.
I have already noted a couple of minor flaws – and there were
others. So what - given that the performance was put together over five
weeks at nine hours rehearsal per week, and that hardly any of the cast
had acted before, those peccadillos become irrelevant.
This was a very impressive production indeed. I am heartily glad that
student theatre continues to thrive and develop here in Lancaster –
and in the City as well as on campus.
Copyright © 9 February 2004 Michael Nunn
Follow these links for the seperate reviews of
Habeas Corpus by Alan Bennett, and Shakespeare's Romeo
plus an overview
of the season.
See also a preview of next term's LUTG