The Rivals – Smock Alley – Review by Keith Thompson
Until 2nd Sept 2017
Fabulously wealthy and exceptionally beautiful Lydia Languish is in love. And more pertinently, is in love with being in love. She is determined to marry – beneath her station and against her guardian’s wishes – the impoverished Ensign Beverly. But Beverly faces numerous obstacles to win her hand; namely, her guardian’s wrath, the strictures of society and the fact that he is not actually poor, nor, for that matter, called Ensign Beverly. He is Captain Jack Absolute in disguise, whose wealthy father has already arranged a marriage for him, to the fabulously wealthy and exceptionally beautiful Lydia Languish…
Add in to the mix of this preposterous premise a meddlesome maid, an ironic Irishman, a cowardly country gentleman and the constantly mis-speaking Mrs Malaprop and you have a comedy of manners that has been consistently successful since its SECOND* airing in 1774. (*By the author’s own account the first performance was a disaster!)
Smock Alley’s current revival is a homecoming of sorts, for a play last staged there 242 years ago, almost to the month. And it certainly feels a natural fit. Director Liam Halligan and designer Colm McNally have done a commendable job with this most unforgiving of spaces, presenting us with an uncluttered set strewn with flowers and books – the chief ingredients of love. Miriam Duffy’s costume design harkens back to the period without studiously aping it – more Hipsteration than Restoration.
The cast take to their task with pace, energy and no little relish. Particular mentions must go to Ashleigh Dorrell: all raised eyebrows, sighs and groans as the hopelessly romantic Languish, Eavan Gaffney; assured and composed as perhaps the play’s only sensible character, Julia Melville, and Colm O’Brien; who excels as both the worrisome, paranoid Faulkland and the laconic, meddlesome Sir Lucius O’Trigger.
Written at the age of 23 by a newlywed Irishman living beyond his means in England, The Rivals was as potent a satire as they come. Sheridan took aim at the morals and manners of his contemporaries and skewered them mercilessly. This, his very first play, was a palpable hit that propelled him to the heights of celebrity and success and its place in the canon is almost entirely uncontested.
The question that hangs over any production of the play, however, is whether it deserves a revival, whether it can still speak to a modern audience. In this current iteration that question is answered with a resounding no. This is not necessarily negative. Halligan and co. have given us a production that is fast, funny and frothy, more entertainment than enlightenment. Those looking for a night of challenging, thought-provoking drama had best look elsewhere.