Reviewed – 22nd March 2018
“A feast of high-blown cod grandiloquence is delivered with crisp authority”
“Love. Zounds!” Newbury’s delightfully cosy Watermill Theatre has a sparkling hit on its hands in an adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals. First performed in 1775, and written in a desperate rush to finance a life lived beyond his means, the play satirises the lives of the well-to-do in the hotbed of intrigue that was Georgian Bath.
The twisting path to true love, with all its deceptions and vanities, is brought to life with real zest by a strong ensemble, directed by Jonathan Humphreys. The piece has been shortened and sharpened by its adaptor Beth Flintoff, complete with a re-written prologue and epilogue. The first compares the hot stories of today with Sheridan’s time, and the second keeps the focus on the women and the way love really does make the world go round.
James Cotterrill’s design features a period-looking thrust stage and a ravishing cascade of high kitsch drapes, in a riot of pink and purple frills and furbelows that neatly parodies the pretensions of the characters on the otherwise empty stage. This is a play of words, not deeds. A feast of high-blown cod grandiloquence is delivered with crisp authority by a talented cast.
Some of the best lines are spoken by the eponymous Mrs Malaprop, played with a wicked sense of fun by Julia St John. Her niece is memorably ‘as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’. The malapropisms are sometimes new (I don’t think Sheridan knew about the calamari which Mrs Malaprop substitutes for a calamity) and they come so thick and fast you’ve hardly time to work out what she really meant to say before another rib-tickler comes along.
Michael Thomas plays Sir Anthony Absolute with a delightfully pugnacious swagger. Ncuti Gatwa is his son Captain Jack, the focus of a web of love complications that had the audience in stitches. His delivery, animated expression and movement (directed by Simon Pittman) wittily evoked the character of the silver-tongued dandy at the centre of the play.
His love is Lydia Languish (recent RADA graduate Emma Denly). She’s far from being a complete air-headed flibbertigibbet, in an interpretation that like Charlotte Bate’s satisfying portrayal of Julia that was as much about empowering the women as it was about reducing them to mere figures of fun.
As Faulkland, James Mack gave an engaging performance as a daft buffoon whose love always comes with a ‘but..’. Christopher Logan has some great comic moments in best stage Irish as Sir Lucius O’Trigger in a role that got Dublin-born Sheridan into trouble at the play’s premiere.
Daniel Abelson completes the versatile cast of eight as Bob Acres. He plays the role in a lusciously broad Bristollian accent that perfectly suits his booby of a character. Other characters are also played with versatility by the cast, so much so in fact that there seemed to be actors missing at the enthusiastic curtain call that concluded tonight’s performance.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
Watermill Theatre until 21st April