I went to this with some apprehension since the last time I saw it was in 1983, when I was 15, in the National Theatre’s production that starred Geraldine McEwen, Michael Horden, Tim Curry, Fiona Shaw and Edward Petherbridge. I remembered John Bury’s huge sweeping Bath crescent set, and of course I remember laughing and laughing and laughing.
Well the good news is that this production is very funny. Mainly, I think, it’s because The Rivals really is a very funny play. The production is mixed - the costumes are lovely, the set is rather drab and uncertain. There is strange variation in acting styles and abilities. Some are excellent, others are weak; some are in period, others are contemporary; some are detailed and meticulous, others are broad-brush and out-front. I didn’t really get much of a sense of a director’s hand and where it worked it was always the actors (and the play) you had to thank, not the director.
For me the great revelation of the production was Tony Gardner’s performance as Faulkland. Gardner’s spoke the words beautifully but inflected the performance with a superb contemporary comic style, so that this awkward subplot about a jealous lover testing his relationship to death emerged as both hilarious and terribly sad. I was reminded of another of my favourite comic actors, Mark Heap, though Gardner has a richer voice. It’s a subplot in a rather classical sense though it emerged for me far the most interesting story. The moment where Faulkland is left alone in his chair, staring rejection in the face, realising that his love really has gone, his mind it seems reeling, his emotions inadequate to the loss, was wretchedly funny.
Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles were enjoyable as Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, though the writing seemed to me to be doing the funny more than the actors. It was weird to feel the ripple of pleasure that ran through the audience as the To The Manor Born actors were reunited on stage. This was a nostalgic murmur in a rather nostalgic evening of theatre, redeemed by some inventive actors.