“I bear no malice to the people I abuse”
Sparkling reinterpretations of 18th century comedies have become something of an annual treat from Jessica Swale’s Red Handed Theatre company and following on from the delights of the Celia Imrie-starring The Rivals, the remounting of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem and last year’s excellent The Busy Body, it is now the turn of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal to be primped and preened in their deliciously inimitable style. So for those as yet uninitiated to their ways, prepare for witty musical interludes and warmly embracing audience interaction as a vivacious ensemble romp through this comedy of manners.
Led by the machinations of the vicious-tongued Lady Sneerwell – Belinda Lang in epically glam form – Sheridan’s plot winds through a portion of the higher echelons of London society and exposes the gossip-fuelled hypocrisy at the heart of it. Lady Sneerwell wants others to suffer the loss of reputation she has; Sir Peter Teazle is concerned about the flightiness of his flirtatious younger wife; Sir Oliver Surface wants to test the mettle of his two nephews who stand to inherit his vast fortune; and above all, everyone wants to be the first to tell the juiciest pieces of gossip with the most salacious details.
It is these scenes which glitter the best – Michael Bryher’s Sir Benjamin Backbite and Buffy Davis’ Mrs Candour delight in outdoing each other with the latest tidbits and Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Teazle gives as good as she gets, even as she sees the effect of the ridicule on her husband, a battered if not quite elderly enough Daniel Gosling. But there’s much fun too with the errant nephews. Harry Kerr’s ruffled and raffish Charles can’t hide his innate goodness even at the heights of his carousing, and Tom Berish’s Joseph is just excellent as the seductively handsome one that everyone likes, little suspecting his most devious nature.
The production is always light-hearted and fun – a trick with a book is particularly well played, the programme is a work of genius and Fi Russell’s costumes are a bejewelled array of lush fabric – but there’s also a sureness to Swale’s direction as she constantly refines and sharpens her approach. Laura Forrest-Hay once again contributes original music rather than pastiches of pop songs, the portrait gallery ditty and the raucous lark in the park number add to the general feel of a delightful romp, unafraid to play it to the back of the (admittedly intimate) Park Theatre but crucially never takes itself too seriously.