SHERIDAN’S immortal comedy The Rivals, set “down the road” in Bath in the 1770s, is the perfect play for Bristol’s Old Vic, which opened just a few years before the play’s premiere.
Chosen as part of the Bristol theatre’s 250th anniversary season, it has been revived in a co-production with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, directed by Glasgow’s artisitic director Dominic Hill.
And it’s a triumph, brilliantly utilising the historic stage and accenting the period story with clever, but never jarring, modern twists. The “open stage” that greets the audience is transformed by flying frames into the various settings for the action, as the actors don and doff their wigs and coats in a flurry of constant activity.
Lucy Briggs-Owen is a revelation as Lydia Languish, the wealthy and sulky teenager immersed in romantic fiction who wants only two things – to thwart her pretentious aunt and to marry a penniless man. She manages a wonderfully modern nasal delivery that gradually lends itself to this selfish brat, beloved by the dashing Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch), who has to pretend humble origins to keep her affection.
There are lots of rivals in Sheridan’s confection – Bob Acres (unforgettably portrayed by Lee Mengo), Sir Lucius O’Trigger in an Andrew Aguecheek performance by Keith Dunphy and Capt Jack for Lydia, Lydia and her hilarious Aunt Malaprop (never overdone by the waspish Julie Legrand) for the misled Sir Lucius, the “troubled” Faulkland against everyone and no-one for the love of the patiently faithful Julia.
Then there is the crusty, lusty old hypocrite Sir
Anthony Absolute, given gleeful gravitas by Desmond Barrit.
Recent BOVTS graduate Lily Donovan is the scheming Lucy, with Henry Everett doubling as Acres’ servant and the harpsichordist – what a great idea to incorporate a classic silent movie chase tune, ideally suited to the instrument.
The whole production is a colourful, energetic riot of fun and games, the famous lines balanced by beautifully timed fresh ideas – no danger of cliché here.
It’s on until 2nd October, and is certainly the most wholly satisfying of the anniversary shows to date.
Photographs by Mark Douet