“There’s a little intricate hussy for you!”
One of my theatrical highlights of the year so far was Celia Imrie in a sparkling production of The Rivals which variously featured audience interaction, recorders, Beyoncé songs and Sam Swainsbury sat on my lap for a while. So, when the Theatre Royal Bath production to be directed by Sir Peter Hall was announced, I was intrigued to see how it would match up. And whilst there is little of the relaxed informality of that Southwark Playhouse version, Hall sticks to what he knows best, gimmick-free, perfectly-cast productions which focus on the writing.
The Rivals is a comedy of manners, set in 18th century Bath amongst the fashionable élite who are there to take the waters and maybe a little gossip and romance on the side. Lydia Languish longs for a romantic elopement such as those of which she has read rather than a conventional marriage and so in order to win her hand, Captain Absolute disguises himself as an impoverished soldier and woos her, despite the disapproval of her guardian, Mrs Malaprop who has her own romantic designs. But Absolute has two rivals for Miss Languish, whose cousin has her own lovelife problems which we observe and the servants are playing their own games resulting in much comedy, chaos and confusion.
I have to be honest, I didn’t think that Celia Imrie’s Mrs Malaprop could be bettered, that having been my first experience of the character and so my expectation level was accordingly not hugely high but Penelope Keith is pleasingly just wonderful as the vocabulary-chewing aunt (though I was a little bemused by the spontaneous applause as she arrived on stage). It is a much more quietly dignified interpretation, one really sees the woman behind the caricature and it is strangely moving, so much so that it lends the finale a really dark turn before her ultimate rescue. And paired with her old sparring partner from To The Manor Born, Peter Bowles, as an irascible but thoroughly equanimous Sir Anthony Absolute, they are a match made in heaven, bouncing off each other, glints in their eyes and a real sense that they are loving it up there.
But fun as these two are, it is the swirl of characters of which they are a part that makes this play the delight that it is, a real ensemble piece in which everyone has an opportunity to shine. And it is a mark of just how well cast this production is that the performances across the board were just delightful. Tony Gardner is resplendent in purple satin and wonderful at capturing the all-too-human prevarication of the self-torturing Faulkner, full of guilt and suspicion yet much admiration of Annabel Scholey’s Julia who is marking herself as an interesting talent as she impressed as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream even against Rachael Stirling’s stunning Helena and does well here at maintaining our sympathies without overplaying it. Making her professional stage debut (although familiar to fans of Survivors) Robyn Addison makes for a haughty but wry Lydia, clearly suggesting the intelligence behind the would-be romantic, connecting well with Tam Williams (also an alumni of the same Dream as Scholey) as a waggish Captain Absolute.
But even in the smaller parts this production remains strong: Ian Conningham’s manservant Fag opens proceedings well with his gossipy summary of events thus far and a lovely genial manner and with Carlyss Peer’s Lucy, a maid on the make, demonstrate that it always pays to keep one’s staff happy. If I had to make one criticism, it would be that I would have preferred a little less mugging from Keiron Self’s buffoonish Mr Acres, given the subtleties throughout the production although given the audience reaction I was definitely in the minority on that.
The set by Simon Higlett is most elegant, the backdrop suggesting the grandeur of Bath’s Georgian architecture without overpowering; Christopher Woods’ costumes look sufficiently opulent and the simplicity of the staging, there’s only ever maybe two pieces of furniture on the stage, works perfectly. I do wonder how this will translate to the rather cavernous Theatre Royal Haymarket but I hope they don’t change too much because in what may initially seem the most traditional and simple of productions here, emerges an evening of classic delight.