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Posts Tagged ‘John Gunter’

I studied Sheridan’s The Rivals for something called ‘O level’ English Literature a lifetime ago. It was one of the first plays I ever saw, in a local school production. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since, and it’s one of only a few 18th Century comedies that is still regularly produced today, so there have been a number of opportunities to reacquaint myself with it, all of which I’ve enjoyed. The best was on the same stage as this, the NT’s Olivier, 39 years ago, where designer John Gunter built Bath’s Royal Crescent, individual houses coming out and revolving to reveal a variety of interiors, and Sir Michael Hordern getting more laughs just eating a boiled egg that many comedies get in a whole act. Then along comes Richard Bean & Oliver Chris to produce an adaptation set in the Second World War, specifically the Battle of Britain. As it is currently customary, it arrives on the NT’s Olivier stage two years later than planned.

Mrs Malaprop’s country estate has been requisitioned as an air base. The rivals in question are vying for the hand of her niece Lydia Languish. Mrs M. is promoting pilot Jack Absolute, whose father Sir Anthony owns a lot of land in Devon, well the whole county actually. Sikh airman Tony Khattri seeks to woo her with his dodgy poetry and Aussie pilot Bob Acres will do anything to win her hand. Lydia is obsessed by Dudley the aircraft mechanic, a bit of northern rough, but Mrs M’s maid Lucy is determined to see her off. The adaptation works brilliantly, bawdier, naughtier and funnier. It’s littered with both verbal and visual gags. I haven’t laughed so much since Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors eleven whole years ago.

There are so many star performances I’m not sure I know where to start. Caroline Quentin relishes every malapropism (the play coined the term) and there are way more than in Sheridan’s original, so many that it’s hard to keep up. Peter Forbes is simply terrific as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who eventually gets his girl too. We know how good Kerry Goddard is at comedy from a string of TV performances, well she’s just as good on stage. Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-at-the-knees turn has the same effect as Michael Hordern’s boiled egg. James Corrigan’s creation of Bob Acres from the outback is an absolute delight. Many of them break the fourth wall regularly to superb comic effect.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of director Emily Burns, who appears to have been learning her craft at the feet of masters like Nicholas Hytner and Simon Godwin. Her production is brilliant, and propels her into the directors premiere league in one move. Designer Mark Thompson fills the Olivier stage with the English countryside and a country house, with a nod to John Gunter (intentional or accidentally) when the interiors come out of the house. There’s even a thrilling dance scene choreographed by Lizzi Gee which gives former Strictly contestant Quentin and winner Kelvin Fletcher (playing mechanic Dudley) an opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is a joy from start to finish. I can’t wait to go back and see it all over again.

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I haven’t seen an entire street on the Olivier stage sine John Gunter built part of the city of Bath for The Rivals in 1984. Bunny Christie’s street has an extra third storey on the houses and is a bit (intentionally) shabbier, but is spectacular nonetheless. It transforms to create an apartment block, shops, nightclub and a clinic.

There is much else to enjoy in Dominic Cooke’s NT debut, but it doesn’t really sparkle like other productions I’ve seen, most recently Propeller at Hampstead in 2010 and I’m not entirely sure why. The pacing is a bit uneven; one minute it’s zipping along, then appears to have ground to a halt. I don’t know whether it has been cut, but it came in at just 2 hours 10 mins with a 20 minute interval, so I suspect it has – though not noticeably.

I liked the idea of acting out Egeon’s opening speech describing how he lost his wife and twin sons (and their twin servants). The more frenetic scenes are given a ‘keystone cops’ style that somehow made them seem fresh though still appropriate for the material. The Abbey has become the Abbey Clinic and one half of both twins end up ‘sectioned’ there after a particularly slick chase scene involving an ambulance driving onto the stage! I also like the idea that the twins have different accents, having been brought up in different places, though Shakespeare didn’t write any lines like ‘why are you speaking funny?’ to support this, so there’s even more disbelief to be suspended than usual! Despite the comedy that preceded it, the closing scene was much more moving than I’ve ever seen it before. I wasn’t sure about the band playing familiar songs in a foreign language at first, but I warmed to it.

After what seemed like a hesitant start, the acting was first-rate. The twins are well matched, particularly Lucien Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromio’s. Lenny Henry has as much presence and as good a  speaking voice as he did in Othello, but is much more relaxed in a comic role where he is able to use his full range of facial expressions. Claudie Blakely’s Adriana and Michelle Terry’s Luciana are deliciously chavvy creations.

So a good rather than great Comedy of Errors, but one I’m glad I saw.

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I studied this play for something that used to be called ‘O’ level. At the time, all I got to see was an amateur production. It was 15 years before I saw a professional one, but it was an extraordinary one; John Gunter seemed to have actually built part of Bath’s Royal Crescent on the Olivier stage (the life-size houses could be turned around and opened out to reveal their interiors) and Michael Hordern turned eating a boiled egg into a comic masterclass.

There’s a lot going on in Sheridan’s restoration comedy and it’s fun – preposterous fun, but fun all the same. The character names are particularly delicious and there are lots of parts, big and small, which actors relish. It’s impossible to dislike, but it doesn’t change your life.

This Peter Hall production comes off the Theatre Royal Bath quality-classics-staged-for-a-song production line. It fits the Theatre Royal Haymarket like a glove. Simon Higlett’s set isn’t as grand as Gunter’s but it does the job perfectly well. The cast is uniformly good, with Penelope Keith an imposing enough Mrs Malaprop and Peter Bowles a fine Sir Jack Absolute. There are great comic turns from Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius and Keiron Self as Bob Acres and a lovely cameo from Ian Connington as Fag.

As much as I enjoyed seeing it again, it didn’t sparkle that much though and I’m afraid it falls into the category of ‘another Rivals’. Still, there are worse nights out to be had.

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