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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Brinsley Sheridan’

The last time I saw this restoration comedy was at the Edinburgh fringe a few years back by a company of stand-ups. It was like a panto and the chief pleasures were Lionel Blair hamming it up mercilessly and Stephen K Amos in a powdered wig – and it all came in at 90 minutes. Deborah Warner’s new production at the Barbican comes in at 3 hours 15 minutes and there isn’t a powdered wig in sight.

Fifteen minutes before curtain-up (not included in the running time above!), you can hear the rave music in the foyer; you’d be wise to go in at this point for a sort of fashion catwalk show in various types of dress and states of undress, with added cardboard signs. What follows is a particularly well spoken show in period costume (well, in a Vivienne Westwood sort of way) and period settings (well, cardboard cut-out with backstage and wings in view) from designer Jeremy Herbert, with a whole host of anachronistic contemporary references like burgers and coke – both types! – blackberries (the electronic variety), shopping bags from designer shops, video projections, flashing lights, binge drinking  and rave music. It’s sort of Sheridan on acid. Oh and there’s a tricorn hat that appears to have grown a lawn!

The story revolves around which of the Surface brothers Uncle Oliver will choose as his heir. He visits them in disguise, obviously, to help him determine who is the most deserving. Then there’s the question of the fidelity of Sir Peter’s new young bride, a husband for Sir Peter’s new ward Maria and the activities of the scandalmongers of the title. As always with restoration comedy we get delicious character names – this one also has Lady Sneerwell, Sir Benjamin Backbite and Careless.

Warner has assembled an outstanding cast, in which Leo Bill shines as Charles Surface. The more experienced actors fare best – John Shrapnel as Uncle (Sir) Oliver, John McEnery as Rowley and Alan Howard no less as Sir Peter Teazle. I particularly liked Vicki Pepperdine’s turn as chief scandalmonger Mrs Candour and Gary Sefton provides some excellent physical comedy playing drunk.

It was meant to shock c.235 years ago, so it seems to me legitimate to attempt to make it shocking today. Warner hasn’t done any damage, though she hasn’t added that much value – except to provide parallels with today’s equally decadent, gossip obsessed society. Having said that, there is a freshness about it (seeing a restoration comedy is often like visiting a museum) which I admired and it doesn’t feel like 3 hours 15 minutes. However, for a comedy, there weren’t really enough laughs.

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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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