This comedy was Richard Sheridan's first play and is set in Bath which, at the time, was Sheridan's home town. But when it was first performed in Covent Garden in January 1775, it received something of a mauling from critics and audience alike. But that wasn't going to stop the 23 year-old Sheridan who promptly edited and substantially rewrote the play and had another stab at a new performance some 11 days later. Surprisingly, the new version received acclaim, which goes to show, perhaps, that audiences were rather more forgiving in those days. Since then, 'The Rivals' has been widely recognised as a classic.
Sheridan's language is elegant and rich, but the plot is a contrived bit of nonsense, which you might expect from a comedy of this time. The real value of the play is to be found in the characters, especially Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute. These two provide most of the humour in the play, especially Mrs Malaprop who misuses words, particularly ones that sound similar to the ones she intends to use. For example, she says of one character: 'He is the very pineapple of politeness'. And there's a lot more where that came from, all of which had the audience giggling appropriately.
The plot focuses on romance and the age-old conflict between the desires of parents and those of their children in affairs of the heart. Lydia reads novels from 'circulating libraries' which were becoming quite popular at the time. She's enthralled by the idea of marrying one Ensign Beverley, who is really Captain Jack Absolute (Tam Williams). Unbeknown to Jack, his father is liaising with Mrs Malaprop (Lydia's guardian) to have him marry Lydia. But when his father tells him of the plans, Jack obstinately reuses to comply with his father's wishes, not realising (at first, at least) that the woman he wants to marry is the same person his father has in mind. Confusion results, of course, and there's more on the agenda in another romance between Lydia's cousin Julia and her suitor, Faulkland.
Simon Higlett's set uses Bath's Royal Crescent (which had recently been completed at the time the play was written) as the backdrop for the whole piece. The interior locations are suggested with a few pieces of furniture. Christopher Wood's costumes are sumptuous and colourful so that the whole design is in keeping with the late eighteenth century. So, there's no tinkering with the setting for Peter Hall's authentic revival.
The casting is pretty-well spot on with the ever-excellent Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute. Ms Keith delivers the malapropisms with brilliantly-timed aplomb, and Peter Bowles manages to restrain his 'frenzy' in spite of his son's defiance. Tam Williams provides a dashing Jack and Tony Gardener is the obsessed Faulkland who can't seem to do anything right in wooing Julia. Robyn Addison as a dreamy Lydia is well-contrasted with Annabel Scholey's more down-to-earth Julia. There's good support too from Gerard Murphy as the combative Sir Lucius O'Trigger and Keiron Self as the country suitor, Bob Acres, who wants to avoid violence at any cost.
As you'd expect from a director with Peter Hall's credentials, this is a polished and considered production, and as such is an exceptionally worthy and commendable revival. Sheridan's play is still fun, accessible and amusing, even if the subject matter may seem a little tired these days.
"Although it’s charming, it could be zestier."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Brilliantly written play...but doesn't carry the atmosphere of the place in the way that a great production like Peter Wood's at the National did in 1983."
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"Richly enjoyable revival... affectionate, lucid and beautifully spoken staging."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph