Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s late 18th century play The Rivals is perhaps best remembered today for having given a new word to the English language. ‘Malapropism’, the term for the mistaken use of a word that sounds like the one you’re actually thinking of, comes from the character Mrs Malaprop, whose speeches are peppered with examples. It’s a device that’s remained a rich source of comedy over the years (remember Hilda Ogden?), and Julie Legrand’s accomplished performance as the ridiculously affected Mrs Malaprop ensures it still gets a lot of laughs here – not least in the final scene, when her climactic assertion ‘Men are all barbarians’ becomes ‘Men are all Bavarians!’
It’s also a linguistic tic that’s very appropriate in a play full of deliberate and unintended mistakes, misunderstandings and deceptions. Set in Bath – as Jane Austen’s novels confirm, then a popular leisure destination for the upper classes – the main focus is the relationship between Mrs Malaprop’s niece Lydia and the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute. They’re in love, but Lydia’s addiction to romantic fiction means she dreams of marrying someone who’s penniless, causing Jack to pretend he’s a common soldier. Mrs Malaprop disapproves of the match, and Jack’s father, the bombastic Sir Anthony Absolute (memorably played by Desmond Barrit), similarly wishes to dictate his son’s choice of bride. Coincidentally, and fortunately for Jack, when Sir Anthony reveals who he wants him to marry it turns out to be none other than Lydia. But will she still want him when she discovers he’s not who she thought he was? Lucy Briggs-Owen’s strikingly effective performance as Lydia gives her the style of speech, the facial expressions and the self-absorbed histrionics of somebody in a present day reality TV show. She’s partnered by Rhys Rusbatch, whose Jack is a believable and sympathetic hero.
There are several other entertaining characters and a number of overlapping sub-plots, including another comically fraught love affair between Lydia’s friend Julia and the depressive Faulkland, who’s always discovering new reasons to doubt Julia’s affection. A group of servants are refreshingly sceptical observers of their masters’ and mistresses’ folly. Dominic Hill’s lively, fast-paced production emphasizes the farcical elements and adds many inventive comic touches to the original text. Designer Tom Rogers’s interesting set, with its racks of clothes and giant picture frames, underscores the idea that many of the characters spend much of the play pretending to be something other than their real selves.
A few of the targets of Sheridan’s satire (including some of the novels adored by Lydia) may now be lost in the mists of time, but love, money and parental interference are themes of perennial interest. And, because it’s based on such recognizable human traits as vanity, insecurity and pomposity, most of the humour still works a treat. The Rivals is nearly 250 years old, but this production makes it remarkably fresh and accessible.
***** Outstanding performances all round – hugely entertaining
The Rivals continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 29 October 2016. For more information click HERE.