“She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge…”
There’s definitely a touch of the “I want to live with common people, I want to do whatever common people do” about leading lady Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners The Rivals.
With an all-consuming passion for trashy romantic fiction, our well-to-do protagonist Lydia has set her heart on marrying a poor man for love, rather than a wealthy man for his fortune. But her aunt with whom she lives, Mrs Malaprop, has other ideas.
And with that, the scene is set for a topsy turvy social satire set in the sumptuous townhouses of Bath, where Sheridan was living while he wrote the play. It is no coincidence that Bristol Old Vic is presenting The Rivals in this its 250th anniversary year, which is almost exactly the same age as the play. And it’s lovely to be able to sit back in the auditorium and watch a performance just as Bristolians would have done two and half centuries before.
As the title of the play suggests, nothing is straightforward in this comedy or errors… with Lydia’s heart being torn between her beloved poor Beverley and his ‘rival’, the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute with whom her aunt wants her to marry. Little realising they are the same person. And Lydia is not the only one in a romantic tryst - indeed, there are almost no characters in this play for whom there is not a complicated confusion of the heart.
Of course, being Bristol Old Vic, there are a few little extra touches to The Rivals. Director Dominic Hill has made the inspired move of giving Lydia (played with astoundingly good comic timing by Lucy Briggs-Owen) an Essex-ish inflection, which works to hilarious effect. Although I was a little less sure of the touches of modernity brought in via Polaroid photos, typewriters and a character reading the Beano. It just didn’t seem like it added anything.
And with a cast this good and a script this funny, you just don’t need the modern extra touches. The unintentional linguistic slip ups of social climbing Mrs Malaprop (played brilliantly by Julie Legrand) are now the stuff of legend - so much so that the word ‘malapropism’ has now become embedded in our language and earned a place in the dictionary as a consequence of her mistakenly using the wrong word with amusing consequences. “We will not anticipate the past”, she declares with absolute surety… as those around her nod obsequiously. While on another occasion she generously declares of a suitor, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”
This latest production of The Rivals is an excellent, old-fashioned night out at the theatre - with plenty of laughs, good natured ribbing and wonderful wigs on show.
The Rivals is being performed at Bristol Old Vic until 1 October 2016. Click here for more information and to book tickets. This is a co-production with the Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.