The Rivals

First performed in 1775, Sheridan’s The Rivals remains surprisingly relevant, not least thanks to its inter-generational conflict. Director Dominic Hill’s tonal approach is most clearly seen in Lydia Languish; she may be dressed up in the finery of 18th century high society, but she acts like a 21st century 17-year-old, full of exaggerated “O-M-G!” posturing and a total belief in her own entitlement. Thanks to Lucy Briggs-Owen’s hard work, Hill is essentially guaranteed a huge laugh every time she appears on the stage.

Hill has opted to emphasise the artifice of the whole situation through Tom Rogers’ design

Lydia, we learn, is a voracious reader of romantic novels and therefore desperate to marry for love rather than money and status. She certainly has no intention of marrying the unseen Captain Jack Absolute, the preferred choice of her word-mangling guardian Mrs Malaprop and his father Sir Anthony Absolute. What neither Lydia, Mrs Malaprop nor Sir Anthony realise is that the aforementioned Jack (Rhys Rusbatch, with just the right level of twinkle in his eye) has already successfully wooed Lydia in the guise of the impoverished Ensign Beverley.

Hill has opted to emphasise the artifice of the whole situation through Tom Rogers’ design; initially, the action takes place on an undressed stage with just a selection of tables and chairs, with wheeled racks of clothes that are moved around as required. As the play progresses, scenic drops descend, displaying the exteriors or the buildings in which the action takes place; plus, always, we view the action through a series of massive picture frames. As an audience, we can even see cast members wandering around the sides or rear of the stage; it’s deliberately unclear whether these are the characters keeping an eye on what's happening or just the cast waiting their next cue.

Although this feels the right approach, given how the play is fundamentally about performance and deception, there’s nevertheless a sense of punches being pulled unnecessarily; that this “elegant comedy of manners” (at least, that’s how the production’s publicity describes The Rivals) is at its best when Hill’s choreography of the characters and actors feel more anarchic.

If there’s a problem with The Rivals, it’s in its two subplots: yes, there is some thematic value in the troubling relationship between sensible Julia (a strong, nuanced performance from Jessica Hardwick) and her betrothed, Faulkland (a generally engaging Nicholas Bishop) who is constantly sabotaging the relationship by testing her devotion. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the other plotline involving Captain Jack’s bachelor friend Bob Acres—yes, Lee Mengo gives us an enjoyable performance, but his story never quite feels connected to the rest and its grinding inevitability ensures that The Rivals runs a real risk of outstaying its welcome, not least as it slowly engineers a happy ending for nigh on everyone on the stage. 

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn

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The Blurb

Social climber and “pineapple of politeness” Mrs Malaprop is determined to make her drama queen niece Lydia Languish a fortuitous match. Enter the inconveniently wealthy Captain Jack Absolute who, in an attempt to fulfil Lydia’s romantic ambition to marry into poverty, disguises himself as a poor soldier—with hilarious consequences.

The Rivals is an elegant comedy of manners set in a world of dress up and complex social etiquette bordering on the absurd. It was inspired by Sheridan’s own romantic entanglements which fed the gossip-mongers of his day with endless scandal and tittle-tattle.

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