Thursday, 22 March 2018

REVIEW: The Rivals at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

I last saw Richard Sheridan's The Rivals in 1983 on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre with a sumptuous Bath Crescent set and a glorious cast which included Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Malaprop, Michael Horden as Sir Antony Absolute with Patrick Ryecart as his son Jack and Tim Curry as Bob Acres. It lIved long in the memory and therefore it was interesting to see what the intimate space of the Watermill theatre in Newbury could do with the classic restoration style comedy of love and deceit. The dated attitudes to the role and expected behaviour of women including the dangers to them of reading is both parodied and reinforced by the play. As a result Director Jonathan Humphreys and Designer James Cotterill make a determined attempt to present the play differently with a cast of just eight.

They set the play not in the houses and parks of Bath but on a Georgian stage with shell footlights and a mass of ornate drapes and a large thrust stage which means a fifth of the audience view the production from the side as very little of the action takes place behind the proscenium arch that the curtains frame. While the curtains do suggest different internal locations they make an odd backdrop to the crucial duelling scene where the truths get revealed. WIth the audience on three sides you might expect them to be regularly addressed with the comic asides of the play but this is restricted to them being asked to hold a book and duelling pistols and occasional glances. This fails to make the most of the setting or make the audience conspirators in the confusion on stage.

The script has been adapted by Beth Flintoff with the elevation of the character Julia, played by Charlotte Bate to almost a master of ceremonies with a new prologue and epilogue which both replaces plot back story from minor characters and seeks to set the play in a modern context. As a result we have jokes about Brexit, Trump and Twitter and a speech about the role of women today in managing the men in society which gets a prolonged round of applause. In addition the characters are stripped back to the central eight leads with cast members doubling up as various servants, most notably Mr Fag.

The central character of Captain Jack Absolute and his alter ego Ensign Beverley is played by Ncuti Gatwa. This likeable young man looks a little too young for the swaggering lover he portrays and is not helped by the odd light green frock coat he wears which hardly suggests a soldier at all or makes it credible that people are confused by his two identities. His love interest, Lydia Languish is played by Emma Denly but is perhaps too modern for us to believe that she would be seduced by the idea of elopement as opposed to the man she is eloping with. 

The two older characters Sir Anthony, played by a very good Michael Thomas
and Mrs Malaprop played by Julia St. John get many of the best lines although at times, in the early preview I saw, they were thrown away too easily. I am not familiar enough with the script to know the original malapropisms but the confusion of calamari with calamity jarred the worst. Some of these are so outrageous and silly that you would expect the rest of the cast to react more pointedly to them.

James Mack as Faulkland, Christopher Logan as Sir Lucius and Daniel Abelson as Bob Acres provide strong support to the confusion.

As always it is a delight to go to this wonderful welcoming theatre and see how they shoe horn big plays into their tiny stage space.This particular light revue format presentation does not work as well as they often do but the enthusiastic cast make it an enjoyable evening for a classic play that defined comical mistaken word use. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Rear Stalls | Price of Ticket: £16.50
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