Sunday, 17 January 2010

'promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory'

One of the problems with being a fan of Restoration Comedies is that they are staged all too infrequently. So when the Daily Telegraph listed Southwark Playhouse's production of The Rivals as one of their must-see productions of 2010, I was sold before I read as far as 'Celia Imrie playing Mrs Malaprop'. When I got to their website and discovered that due to 'airline style pricing' I could get tickets for just £8, I was over the moon. (Although, to be honest, even full last minute prices of £16 are not exactly prohibitive, particularly in London.)

Southwark Playhouse is a bit of an industrial place. Situated under some railway arches near to Tower Bridge, every so often the actors' words were echoed by the rumbling of passing trains. It's a tiny, intimate venue, with sooty redbrick walls and vaulted ceilings. It is not exactly the image of Restoration Bath. Yet it worked amazingly well. The set was simple, and played wittily on the idea of the written word - the young heroine, Lydia Languish is determined to marry a penniless suitor for love, having read too many novels - with side tables covered in book pages, and four 'bay trees' created beautifully from the same material. The white and ivory set provided an excellent backdrop for the heady whirl of intrigues and love affairs. And the heady whirl of dancing and singing.

It was probably foolish of me to be surprised, given that the play is set in Bath, that the rural lads and lasses were speaking in broad West Country accents. The truth of the matter is, that most of the similar stuff I've seen in the last fifteen years was done by Northern Broadsides, which means that 'country bumpkin' = Lancastrian. Also surprising was the excess of comely young chaps, larking about in breeches, but that's to do with the play - the 'rivals' in question being the various men competing for the hands of a very limited number of ladies. The unreserved seating meant we got to sit on the front row, and at one point the leading man scooshed me up to sit down, and gave my knee a little squeeze to say thanks. Pleasant as it was, it was just one of many ways in which the cast made this production a little more interactive, a lot more fun, and a jolly good way to spend a soaking wet January afternoon.

But it's a 235 year old play, I hear you cry. Chaps in breeches are all very well, but is it relevant; is it up to date? Well, it's the play that gave us the word 'malapropism' for Mrs Malaprop who has an extensive and badly applied vocabulary. It has a lot to say on the battle of the sexes, and how men and women relate, which doesn't seem to have changed a lot. Exactly how little was demonstrated by the opening song, which got the whole audience in the mood. It's astonishing how tuneful and appropriate Single Ladies was to the play. Can't identify it? It took me a while, until they got to the chorus. The subtitle is 'If you liked it you should have put a ring on it' and it's by Beyonce. Boys, you have been warned.

Edited to add: Read someone else's review in The Guardian.

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