THE RIVALS. By Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
An open, formal space, marked off by four high obelisks. Music that sounds classical, but modern too. Nothing quite what it first appears. That's how Alasdair Ramsay's Basingstoke production approaches this comedy of love and disguise in 18th-century Bath.
Even the play's not what it seems. Sheridan's five-hour original played for one disastrous night at Drury Lane. He had to rewrite it in 10 days, cutting and softening the satire. But look below the surface and the original's dark tones emerge. "Sheridan saw the English through Irish eyes. He didn't particularly like them and tried to be savage but this was the age of reason; everyone had to be nice to one another," says Ramsay.
The characters are not self-deluded, except possibly the maladroit social climber Mrs Malaprop (Kate Dove) and the penniless Irishman Sir Lucius O' Trigger (Christopher Ettridge).
The insecure lover Faulkland (Tom Bevan) can't believe that Julia (Verity Hewlett) loves him. He knows he's going about wooing her the wrong way, but cannot help himself. Julia is, "the most mature character, soft and loving but she has an edge," says Ramsay.
Julia's cousin, Lydia Languish (Victoria Woodward) belies her name. She may be seen initially lying around but she has a youthful enthusiasm and is a strong-minded girl, involved in intrigue and soon angry when one of the rivals for her hand, Jack Absolute (Steven Brand) reveals his true identity. This makes her ttractive despite being a spoilt little rich girl.
She'd believed her rich lover Jack to be impoverished Ensign Beverley. Jack loves her but plays along with her fantasy of having a poor lover to capture her fortune. Conniving, yes - "but every male would like to be this handsome Jack-the-Lad. He has a sense of fun and play but analyse his behaviour and it's not very pleasant."
His father, Sir Anthony (Timothy Ackroyd), believes: "Women shouldn't read, children should listen to their parents. Marriage is a financial transaction and Lydia is an object either of lust (more strongly shown in Sheridan's original) or avarice."
This contrasts with Lydia's teenage rebellion - whatever her aunt Mrs Malaprop says must be wrong to Lydia. There's more to Mrs Malaprop than her famous lexical chaos. Like Lady Teazle in School for Scandal she wants to be part of an in-crowd that doesn't want her. Through her Sheridan asks, "Why do we want to be part of a group of shallow people?" Ramsay says: "Mrs Malaprop brings a lot on herself from loneliness. She's on the periphery of very rich people, is related to one of them, but she dresses badly, looks old and ugly. She has no partner in a world where everyone else is getting partners. She's at an age when she's losing out in the race and she over-compensates by trying too hard to impress."
Timothy Ramsden Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, until March25. Tickets: 01256 465566. Greenwich Theatre April 4-22. Tickets: 020 8858 7755