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5 Star Review of The Rivals at Arcola Theatre

Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop in THE RIVALS.
Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop in THE RIVALS. Photo Credit Simon Annand

The Arcola Theatre in Dalston is well known for putting on diverse and challenging work for the London stage, so, it was a bit of a surprise to hear they were staging Richard Sheridan’s Regency comedy The Rivals. For those, like me, whose school didn’t include this play in their curriculum, The Rivals is a complicated tale of deception, love, disguise, jealousy mixed in with the social etiquette of the times. The Rivals is also a really great night’s entertainment.

Luckily, the opening scene between Fag (Carl Prekopp) and Thomas the Coachman (Adrian McLoughlin) is a wonderful device for setting the scene and bringing the audience up to date with events prior to the start of the action. I will try to summarise this below.

Fag is valet to Captain Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) a young army officer in love with Lydia Lanquish (Jenny Rainsford) and who pretends to be the lowly “Ensign Beverley” to add a little more romance. Lydia has two others suitors on the go. Bluff countryman Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who she knows about, and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Adrian McLoughlin) of who’s existence she is unaware, as he has been secretly conversing by letter with her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) believing it to be Lydia – well actually Lydia disguised as “Delia”. Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost) is also in the game as he wants Jack to marry, but doesn’t tell him that Lydia is the chosen bride. Add to the mix Lydia’s friend Julia (Justine Mitchell) her paramour, and Jack’s friend – Faulkland (Adam Jackson-Smith) and some scheming servants and the stage is set. OK, so the above may seem, at first reading complicated and confusing but if you only take in half of what is written, then you know this is going to be good.

Jenny Rainsford as Lydia Languish and Justine Mitchell as Julia Melvill in THE RIVALS.
Jenny Rainsford as Lydia Languish and Justine Mitchell as Julia Melvill in THE RIVALS. Photo Credit Simon Annand

At around three hours and with so many characters you would think that this would be a difficult play to follow, but I never noticed the time going by as there was so much happening all the time. Even the scene changes were part of the play with Fag, Lucy (Hannah Stokely), the Manservant (Ed Phillips) and a, getting more disgruntled by the minute, maid (Lily Cooper) playing and singing as they moved bits of furniture on and off the stage with Lucy shouting out the current location once they had finished setting it.

As with many plays of the time, there is an extra character, not mentioned in the programme – the audience. The Rivals has no fourth wall between the stage and the actors. The audience is acknowledged by each character on their first entrance, and are often a part of the performance, hiding romantic novels, holding cloaks and in one truly hilarious scene assisting Bob after he literally over-stretches himself trying to dance a cotillion.

Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop.
Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop in THE RIVALS.
Photo Credit Simon Annand

Thanks to some brilliant casting, every character was brought to life in tremendous style by a cast that was so good it’s difficult to pick out a favourite. Mrs Malaprop and her destruction of the English language, ”Sure if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs”, expertly played by Gemma Jones, who was obviously relishing the malapropisms as she confounded and confused all around her. Jenny Rainsford’s Lydia was everything a sweet young girl of the time should be. Completely over-the-top histrionics whenever something happened and going off in a strop when she didn’t get her way. Credit also has to go to Justine Mitchell’s Julia, who had some of the longest, most complex pieces of solo dialogue I’ve ever heard, and delivered them all brilliantly. However, for me the absolute stars of the show were Sir Anthony and Jack. The stage shone whenever Nicholas and Iain were on together. They were like a comedy duo who had worked together for years. Actually no, they were like a father and son! The old man determined to get his own way and forgetting (as parents often do) what it is like to be young, and the youthful, eager to please his dad whilst also trying to exert his independence, son sparkled as they interacted both verbally and physically.

Ian Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in THE RIVALS.
Ian Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute
Photo Credit Simon Annand

The history of this show is quite impressive with it opening and closing on the same night in 1775 and a massive rewrite before it re-opened 11 days later. I would love to know what the original was like, because the rewrite is so brilliant. Sheridan really knows how to use words to convey subliminal messages. Although not politically correct these days – there was a shocked gasp when Sir Anthony made a comment about buying livestock with a farm – the script delivers a marvellous slice of life in the late 18th Century. More importantly, although I had never seen any Sheridan before, the script felt familiar and on the way home I realised why. Ben Elton and Richard Curtis had obviously drawn on the playwright for inspiration when penning the third series of Blackadder. Indeed there is a scene in the play to do with taking out your anger on those below you that appeared almost exactly the same in the TV series.

Selina Cadell’s direction mixed with the minimal but highly effective set design of Emma Bailey and the costumes of Rosalind Ebbutt (crinoline and corsets for the ladies, with well filled britches, tricorn hats and cloaks for the men) worked brilliantly together to create the town of Bath and fill it with these characters, so full of #firstworldproblems but so marvellous to behold. All told, a wonderful show in the most perfect setting.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Arcola Theatre presents THE RIVALS by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
‘Through all the drama – whether damned or not
Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot.’

When Town meets Country in the summer streets of Bath, Society begins to play. Duels, duplicities and secret disguises abound. At the centre of it all is Lydia Languish, determined to marry a penniless man for love. But first she must contend with the formidable Mrs Malaprop, whose devastating blunders are infamous…

The sparkling wit and whirlwind plot of The Rivals has delighted audiences for 240 years. This brand new production reinvigorates Sheridan’s masterpiece with modern touches and theatrical flair. It is the first time the Arcola has staged late Restoration comedy.

Selina Cadell, last seen in the National Theatre productions of People and The Habit of Art, has directed acclaimed versions of The Way of the World and The Importance of Being Earnest. For this classic comedy, her cast includes Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sense and Sensibility) as Mrs Malaprop and Nicholas Le Prevost (Shakespeare in Love, My Fair Lady) as Sir Anthony Absolute.

Gemma Jones, Nicholas Le Prevost, Iain Batchelor, Adam Jackson-Smith, Justin Edwards, Adrian McLoughlin, Carl Prekopp, Jenny Rainsford, Justine Mitchell, Hannah Stokely, Lily Cooper and Ed Phillips.

Directed by Selina Cadell, Set Design Emma Bailey, Costume Design Rosalind Ebbutt, Lighting Design Tom Boucher, Production Manager William Newman, Stage Manager Rachel Reeve, Assistant Director Theo Scholefield, Musical Director Eliza Thompson, Wardrobe Leah Curtis, Production and Casting Consultant Clare Rich, Choreographer Stuart Sweeting.

Oct 15 2014 – Nov 15 2014
Monday – Saturday evenings at 7.30pm – £18 (£14 concessions)
Saturday matinees at 3.00pm – £16 Matinees (£12 concessions)
Pay What You Can Tuesdays (28 October, 4 & 11 November): tickets in person from 6.30pm – limited and subject to availability
Running time is approximately 2hrs 55mins including an interval.

Thursday 23rd October 2014


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