Monday 7 February 2011

The Rivals

I saw Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London on Saturday, as I mentioned I would, and it was very, very good. To be honest, although the acting was great, I think it would be difficult to do the play badly. It might be up there with The Importance of Being Earnest of an actor-proof play, out of which even the most amateur of groups could wring many laughs.

Even if you think you know nothing about this play, chances are you do - for it is from The Rivals, and more precisely the character Mrs. Malaprop, that we get the malapropism. This maiden aunt (played on Saturday by the incredibly wonderful Penelope Keith, one of my heroines) speaks with 'words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced' - leading to all kinds of amusing mishaps, which have little impact on the plot, but are richly enjoyable. For example: 'He is the very pineapple of politeness'; 'Promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory' and so on and so forth.

Although it is Mrs. Malaprop whose fame has lived longest, The Rivals is really mostly concerned with the complex love polygon (for triangle would be too simple) taking place with almost every character on stage. Chief amongst them is Captain Jack Absolute (played with saucy and energetic panache by Tam Williams) and Lydia Languish. They love each other, but he is under an assumed name, since she considers love more romantic if with one from another caste (shades of Love on the Supertax here?) His father (Peter Bowles, making a To The Manor Born reunion which made my little dreams come true) has arranged with Mrs. Malaprop (Lydia's aunt) for the two to be married - but Lydia doesn't know they are one and the same. All very confusing, and that's just for starters. It's all the most wonderful tangled web, of the variety beloved by late-18th century playwrights and P.G. Wodehouse alike. And that's not even mentioning the less important characters, all of whom are embroiled somehow.

It's such a fun play, and plotted so skillfully. Laughter rang throughout the theatre - which was shamefully nowhere near full, but that does mean you might still be able to secure tickets before it closes on 26th February. I agree with everything Charles Spencer says in his Telegraph review, from compliments about Simon Higlett's beautiful set design, to Spencer's relief that they haven't tried to make the play 'relevant' by needlessly updating or meddling with it. I love that a play from 1775 can still cause such joy and levity - and the chance to see Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles reunited was a delightful added bonus. I'd love to see more Sheridan plays now, especially School for Scandal... I wrote on these for finals back in 2007, but they have drifted from my mind.

If only the theatre weren't so hideously expensive...


  1. Think you said it Simon. The reason the theatres aren't filling up is that it is too expensive to go. By the time you've factored in travel as well you are looking at the occassional treat for birthday/christmas/anniversary.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the performance, I saw it in London just before Christmas.

    A wee post of one of many witty exchanges I put up on MCS at the time.

  3. Loved the line '...the pineapple of politeness.'

    Glad you enjoyed your day out!

  4. Fabulous! Glad you enjoyed it - shame there were empty seats as it sounds a wonderful production.

    I saw School for Scandal back in 1990 at the Olivier, with an all star cast (Prunella Scales, Jane Asher, John Neville, the late great Denis Quilley etc). It was marvellous and if a good production comes up, I urge you to go and see it.

  5. Penelope Keith on stage, how fantastic. In 1992 (you were still in short pants) I saw Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Haymarket with Felicity Kendal. I was in Good Life heaven. The cast also included Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield and Daniel Massey. And Robert Hardy sat two seats away from me and referred to my messenger bag as a carcass. He happened to be with a young, very attractive male. No doubt his nephew...

  6. Penelope Keith, you lucky devil! She was really the reason why I love The Good Life so much!

  7. Susan - indeed it was!

    Alison - it is such a shame that the theatre costs so much - thank goodness for initiatives like the RSC's under-25 £5 tickets. Travel to London also costs more if you lose your train ticket while you're there...

    Peter - it's such a fun play; I'm glad you enjoyed it too, and indeed I think I saw your comments at the time :)

    Darlene - the malapropisms were delivered so well by Penelope Keith - as though Mrs. Malaprop were constantly striving for erudition.

    Annabel - I'll do my best to see it! I remember loving reading it. Maybe this performance will spark off more Sheridan revivals?

    Thomas - oh, you gossip! I saw Penelope Keith seven or eight years ago in Time and the Conways; also wonderful. I'm very annoyed I didn't go and see Felicity Kendal in Mrs. Warren's Profession, which she was touring with recently - it was so expensive. But I wish now that I had.

    Daniel - she is the shining star in The Good Life, isn't she?


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at