Review: ‘The Rivals’ by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Thursday, March 17, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Going to see a play without having read it beforehand always makes me feel a bit like going to see a band play live without knowing many of their songs: slightly awkward and often rather lost.  So, when I decided to get tickets for myself and the Old English Thorn to go to see the Haymarket’s recent splendid production of Sheridan’s famous comedy The Rivals, I headed straight over to Amazon immediately after buying the tickets to purchase myself a copy of the play script.  Despite not much reading time, I just managed to squeeze it in before heading up to London for a delightful day of culture, in which I went to see the Royal Ballet’s Giselle at the Royal Opera House in the afternoon (note to self: I am too short for standing tickets at the ROH; next time buy a seat) then collected the Thorn and headed off to the Haymarket for The Rivals in the evening.

The Rivals is a comedy of manners which centres around the tangled love lives of its cast.  Captain Jack Absolute has disguised himself as a lowly ensign going by the name of Beverley in order to woo Lydia Languish who, perversely, finds the idea of eloping with a poor man far more romantic than that of marrying a wealthy heir.  She is also being courted by Bob Acres, who has no idea that his friend Jack is in fact his hated rival Beverley, and by Sir Lucius O’Trigger, whose letters of love the servant delivers to Mrs Malaprop, Lydia’s guardian, instead of the lady herself.  The matter is further complicated when Sir Anthony Absolute arranges with Mrs Malaprop for Jack himself to marry Lydia.  The play follows these characters as they cluelessly attempt to work out these increasingly awkward situations.

The Rivals proved to be a most enjoyable, highly entertaining play.  My experience of going to see plays is somewhat limited (almost exclusively Shakespeare) so it made a very pleasant change to read and watch a play for which I didn’t need footnotes to understand the jokes and allusions.  It was still clever and witty, but it was essentially a situation comedy and so the humour was less word based and a lot less obscure than I’m used to.  In fact, I didn’t need to have read the play at all as it was perfectly easy to understand what was going on and to take delight in the confusion on stage without being confused yourself without any prior knowledge of the plot.  I always feel a bit guilty dragging the Old English Thorn along to plays as I know I enjoy them far more than he does, on the whole, but he sat next to be laughing uproariously the whole way through.

Of course, the fabulous cast definitely helped.  Penelope Keith made a great Mrs Malaprop, pulling off her many amusing lines full of confused words with aplomb and managing to be simultaneously rather haughty and yet still warm and like able.  Peter Bowles played alongside her as a stern but jovial Sir Anthony Absolute and the two made a brilliant pair.  By far my favourite characters were two of the more minor ones though: Bob Acres made me laugh every time he opened his mouth and Faulkland’s perpetual gloom was just brilliant.  The scene in which the two of them discuss Julia, Falkland’s bride to be, was a great piece of comedy and, like the rest of the play, thoroughly enjoyable.

Because this play is enjoyable and lighthearted, I don’t think I gained much from the separate experience of reading The Rivals, unlike a Shakespeare play where I feel that when I read the script I notice so many subtle tricks of brilliance that are lost in the general performance when I see the play acted out.  I’m sure that I still missed lots of clever things which would be obvious to someone who has studied the play, but for once it was really great to see a play without analysing it and to just enjoy it for what it is: a witty piece of entertainment.

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  Published by New Mermaids, 1995, pp. 125.  Originally published in 1775.

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