Elegance, wit and timing

28th October 1994 at 00:00
The rivals, By Richard Brinsley Sheridan. As one might expect in a production emanating from the Chichester Festival Theatre, we have here a sumptuously costumed, elegantly designed and carefully directed revival of Sheridan's first play.

Set in Bath during the second half of the 18th century, the quintessential Englishness of The Rivals is at the core of Richard Cottrell's precise production. He has taken his cue from the fact that the Dublin-born playwright came to England at the age of eight and was educated at Harrow.

The play's reflection of a severe society which had little time for the notion of romantic love is seen in Jack Absolute's pursuit (itself part mercenary) of Lydia Languish, while his friend, Faulkland, frets over whether Julia, the object of his own affections, is worthy of his devotion. This was not a Politically Correct age.

At the heart of this comedy of misunderstanding is, of course, Mrs Malaprop - potentially one of the truly great eccentrics of English drama. Cottrell's achievement is to allow Patricia Routledge, one of our finest comic actors, full rein without overbalancing the entire evening. Miss Routledge's flair and precise sense of timing mean that the character's linguistic distortions are never lost in audience laughter - of which there is plenty.

Richard Johnston's authoritarian Sir Anthony Absolute - a calculated misanthrope with gout - adds further rich character to a production never short on invention.

The fact that Cottrell has chosen to use a rather more extended version of the text than usual is helpful to students - though there must be reservations about the decision to add a dubiously-written epilogue.

Touring to Richmond, Surrey (this week), then one week each at: Nottingham (October 31), Wolverhampton (November 7), Malvern (November 14), Edinburgh (November 21) and Guildford (November 28).

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