A rival version

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first comedy, The Rivals, opened Philadelphia's Walnut Street theatre in 1812 in an adaptation geared to making the leading actor's role central - and he was playing Bob Acres. This year a new production, textually faithful to this version, opens in Derby with a mix of British and American actors, before travelling to Walnut Street.

Director Mark Clements sets the action in 1920s Bath, when the town was still a place of hunt balls and shooting parties. Stretching history somewhat he relates post-Great War abandon among the affluent to post-Civil War excess in Restoration drama, whose heir he sees in Sheridan's comedy.

Three characters become American, heiresses Lydia and Julia, and the servant Lucy (played by a black American). They have the cash - Clements reckons that in 1920s terms Lydia would be a millionairess - but the young ladies have been sent as debutantes to be "finished" by Mrs Malaprop so they can marry into the social cachet of a British title.

There's only one plot joke in The Rivals says Clements; the comedy lies in the characters. The production style, rooted in truth but with a "heightened layer above", needs to place the eccentric, extravagant Malaprop and Acres in the same world as the more serious Julia and Faulkland.

These two spend most of their time together but occasionally relate to others. Often, Clements claims, Julia is played as utterly sensible and Faulkland as absurdly jealous. If she were that, says the director, she would finish with her lover and do better for herself. As it is, she soon returns to him. Such is love; they deserve each other thoroughly and should not be inflicted on anyone else.

In fact, the four lovers are all good at seeing each other's faults but have limited insight into their own, Lydia and Jack especially. And almost all the characters are hopelessly romantic. Private Beverley (as the Ensign becomes) encourages Lydia's love-and-a-crust notions, born of her never having had to work a day in her life, and which would last five minutes in reality.

Romance is also the key to Mrs Malaprop. The famous mistakes are not those of a stupid woman; though she lacks common sense she knows what she means, it's just that she cannot grasp the right words. But she is driven by strong sexual desires. Hence her pleasure at seeing Jack Absolute, for in her pursuit of Sir Lucius O' Trigger she has tired of the duty to see Lydia married and here is a desirable solution to the Lydia problem. Sir Lucius has romantic notions of duelling, which he happily engages in without due cause.

Acres is odd man out. "The play's structure sets him up as court jester, " says Clements, "he's broadly drawn, but there needs to be more to him so we're playing him as very warm and emotional, someone wanting to be everybody's friend. And he is the exception to the romantic rule. Behind him is his mother, 'the old lady', who is probably pushing him to marry. Left to himself he's always following the new fad."

One of Clements's reasons for sticking to the Bath setting is to keep the comedy of west countryman Bob up among the urbane sophisticates. Perhaps there was reason in that 1812 show after all.

Derby Playhouse January 31-February 22. Tickets: O1332 363275

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