Sheridan’s Rivals at the Arcola

 

..Mrs. MALAPROP You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all—thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

LYDIA Ah, madam! our memories are independent of our wills. It is not so easy to forget…

 

Fortunately for us, this is true indeed – and so Sheridan lives on. Just when it seemed there was a dearth of his work being performed on London stage, up he pops again. Deprived of seeing the likes of John Neville and Maggie Smith in this best loved of Sheridan’s plays, it was an absolute treat to be able to see it at the Arcola before it transfers to the West End (there will be a West End transfer, I hope? It surely deserves it ….): Nicholas Le Prevost, Gemma Jones led a strong cast including Carl Prekopp and Adrian McLoughlin (both brilliant in their double-ups), Ian Batchelor (Captain Jack Absolute), Adam Jackson-Smith (Faulkland), Justin Edwards (Bob Acres), Jenny Rainsford (Lydia Languish), Justine Mitchell (Julia Melville) and Hannah Stokely (Lucy). These gave their all in a fresh, vibrant, powerful and above all cheerful production, compact and versatile that bridges the gap between old and new – and even manages to imbue it with a certain child-like freshness and innocence.

It is hard to imagine the play’s original reception: roundly criticised for among other things its bawdiness and characterisation(the actor playing O’Trigger was even hit with an apple during performance); it might have ended there, an unhappy and minor blot in the history of stage. Instead, without hesitation Sheridan withdrew the play and re-wrote it in 11 days flat, and so earned himself and it a rather more rewarding place  in the collective affections of the nation.

With moppings and mowings a-plenty, with winks and smirks, direct contact with the audience, simple scenery and empathetic direction, the audience is transported back to the birth of modern comedy: it is taken by the hand and led through a door straight into 1775, with double identities and misunderstandings, duels and duplicity, sparring fathers and sons, wealthy young mamselles with their romantic novels and unwanted guardians. There is music, song, a gambol or two and a very handsome quadrille to finish off with. (It was a quadrille, wasn’t it?) The colours merge and complement each other, nothing clashes, and there is detail in everything, down to the increasingly petulant tossing of grass  and hay on stage to illustrate outdoor scenes. The Arcola lends itself to this kind of theatre, harking back to the simplicity of the Globe, while allowing for the intimacy and interaction of the later Restoration and Enlightenment. All in all, a sparkler of an evening, worth seeing more than once if you can. And the theatre bar is very comfy too.

All that was lacking was an extra candle-lit chandelier or two to complete the effect. Hang health and safety….

 

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