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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Rivals
Haymarket Theatre       Winter 2010-2011

This is a moderate, one might even say stately production of Sheridan's classic comedy.

Director Peter Hall evidently trusts the text so completely that he has instructed his cast to do nothing to try to add to the comedy already there on the page.

There are plenty of laughs to be found by this approach, but you might find yourself wishing he had allowed the actors to gild the lily just occasionally,to add to the fun.

Put another way, again and again you will spot moments that could have been a lot funnier if the actors had just punched up the gags a bit, or even acknowledged they were there.

At the centre of a typically convoluted plot are, inevitably, a pair of lovers. Her head has been so turned by romantic novels that she can only imagine eloping with a poor boy and living on love alone.

So he, a well-off army officer, pretends to be just that. But then his father arranges a suitable marriage for him - with, of course, this very girl, who doesn't find an approved and conventional match anywhere near as appealing.

There are several other characters hovering about, most notably the infamous Mrs. Malaprop, whose misadventures in self-expression ('He is the very pineapple of perfection') have added a word to the English language.

This production has been built around Penelope Keith as Mrs. Malaprop and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony, the young lover's father - and therein lies a serious problem.

While those two characters traditionally steal every scene they're in, they are still essentially supporting roles, and casting lesser actors in the younger roles leaves something of an energy vacuum at the centre of the play.

Certainly Tam Williams as the officer who is his own love rival takes a long time to find the character and build up much comic steam for him, while Robyn Addison as the over-romantic heroine never does move past empty and wooden line readings.

Tony Gardner is droll as another swain masochistically determined to distrust every sign of happiness. But what little comic energy is brought in performance comes from Keiron Self as the amiable country lad Bob Acres and Ian Cunningham as a servant who turns all his side comments into a music hall routine.

Meanwhile, Penelope Keith takes the audacious risk of completely underplaying Mrs. Malaprop's malaprops to the point of ignoring them and just plowing through as if they weren't there - and it works.

Because the actress doesn't hand us each joke on a silver platter, we have to listen fo rthem, and finding them for ourselves, are all the more delighted by them.

And Peter Bowles creates a delightful character by taking one aspect of Sir Anthony, his general disapproval of the younger generation, and making it the keystone to his personality, so that he is likely to react to everything, including the audience's laughter, with a baleful glare.

This is a glass either half empty or half full; it could have been a lot better, but you may well find it good enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Rivals - Haymarket Theatre 2010
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