THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Derby Playhouse, Northampton Theatre.
One of the best-known 18th-century comedies, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777) is a fast-talking comedy of manners which explores the difference between appearance and reality. In the play, London society is full of gossips such as Lady Sneerwell, whose coterie is a "school for scandal". Sneerwell is happy to encourage rumours of her affair with the seemingly upright Joseph Surface, to cover her desire for his brother, the apparently feckless Charles.
Charles, however, is pursuing Maria, the ward of Sir Peter Teazle, who constantly suspects his new young wife, Lady Teazle, of being unfaithful. At the play's climax, he discovers her behind a screen in Joseph's rooms, and it emerges that Joseph is not as good as he seems - nor Charles as bad as his reputation implies.
Natasha Betteridge, who directs the play for a joint production by Derby Playhouse and Northampton Theatre, says: "It's a play which allows you to let your imagination run a bit wild." She sees it as mainly "about celebrity and fame", with its gossips, stories and concern about reputation. "We've always craved celebrities, but when we've got them we just drag them down." When Charles sells his family paintings to pay off his debts, it's pointed out that the portraits "don't look like the people they're meant to portray, which reminds me of the way celebrities in real life never look like they do on the front cover of Hello! magazine".
The School for Scandal is "extremely relevant today", and the "theme of the difference between reality and appearance is exemplified by Joseph and Charles's surname - Surface". Betteridge's staging, in a style she calls "18th-century quirky minimal", will have characters such as Snake and Lady Sneerwell staying on stage during the scene changes, "which both covers the scene changes and gives the sense that the characters are never alone, but are always being watched".
To bring out the central concept of sentiment - or genuine feeling as opposed to artificial formality - Betteridge's very physical production will stress the characters' self-awareness: "Watch me, I'm going into this bit of sentiment." The play, with its numerous asides, works best when the cast plays to the audience, despite some of its contemporary political messages having been lost.
The School for Scandal runs from today until October 6 in Derby and from October 12- November 3 in Northampton. Tickets: 01332 363 275; 01604 624811