Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Rivals – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Writer: Richard Sheridan
Director: Gari Jones
Reviewer: Michael Gray

Why not treat Sheridan to what Shakespeare has been accustomed to for years, now ?  A director-led, concept-driven production to point up the play's relevance to our times.

So this was Gari Jones's Rivals, done as in-your-face Burlesque, with hints of the circus and the catwalk. “Garish, gaudy, cheap and obscene,” as poor Fag sings from the Tiger Lillies' songbook at the top of the show.

Amy Yardley's design was a striking blend of glitzy glamour and almost industrial grimness: the black walls, floor, chairs, setting off the colourful costumes, which were a stylish gallimaufry of cabaret, punk, New Romantic, and, of course Eighteenth Century Bath.

The production boasted a first-rate cast, including many familiar repertory faces. The two major character roles were played by Christine Absalom, as a vulgar but vulnerable Mrs Malaprop, and Ignatius Anthony as a barnstorming, bluff and ruddy Sir Anthony. Both brilliantly characterized, not missing a nuance in this comedy of manners. Marshall Griffin was a fiery Sir Lucius, and I particularly enjoyed Graeme Brookes's Brummy Bob Acres, a cowardly country boy out of his depth in society. Clare Humphrey played a lippy Lucy the maid, with a voice like a foghorn.

Lydia Languish, longing for a romantic elopement, was beautifully done by Katherine Manners, like a delicate doll in her palest pink dress; her Captain Jack was Will Norris – his energetic performance kept the intrigue moving. The other pair of lovers were Nadia Morgan's Julia and her Faulkland, played with subtle comedy and some pathos by David Tarkenter.

Roger Delves-Broughton caught the style nicely as the servant Fag – almost an Auguste in this circus.

Hard to describe the overall effect of the production. A Fellini dream, maybe, with more than a little Luhrmann. I wasn't entirely persuaded by the programme note. The songs – Avarice, Send in the Clowns [!] - were often a distraction, and of course made a long show even longer. Though I did think the two numbers either side of the interval – Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, and Evelyn Evelyn's pastiche Have You Seen My Sister – worked real  show-business magic.

I felt somewhat battered by the end – the bright lights, the top—of-the-voice delivery. And it was noticeable that most of the laughs came in the more traditional moments when Sheridan was left to speak for himself.

But nobody walked out, much less threw apples. The applause at the end was enthusiastic. This is a young man's piece, after all, and I hope audiences of all ages will find it a refreshing re-working of an old favourite. We are fortunate to have a regional stage ready to take risks with a production which, like it or not, makes superb use of limited resources, and showcases the best of this enterprising company.

Runs until 12th March 2011
frontpage hit counter