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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The School For Scandal
Park Theatre Summer 2013

Costume drama isn't easy, and period comedy is even harder. So it is a particular pleasure to encounter a production of Sheridan's 1777 comedy that gets everything so very right as this sprightly and high-spirited offering from Red Handed Theatre. 

Sheridan's plot has something to do with which of two brothers, the successful but devious one or the good-hearted wastrel, will get the inheritance and the girl (No points for guessing right). 

But its real heart lies in the satiric depiction of a society built on gossip, the more scandalous and mean-spirited the better though Sheridan makes the scandal-mongers so witty and entertaining that we can't help enjoying what we're supposed to be rejecting. 

Queen of this coterie is Lady Sneerwell, whose at-home days are the media centre for characters with names like Snake, Candour and Backbite, spreading the nasty word on dozens of others we never meet and, the minute any of them leave the room, each other.

Belinda Lang plays her ladyship with such arch wit and delicious malice that we keep forgetting that she's one of the villains of the plot and just relish the naughty energy she brings every time she's onstage. 

Her chief ally is Tom Berish's Joseph Surface (the nasty brother), whose lecherous plots keep things moving forward. Sheridan has Joseph repeatedly facing exposure, and Berish is fun to watch as he desperately (and for a time successfully) improvises his way out of traps he's created for himself. 

The good brother and the girl in the triangle are almost inevitably blander creations, but Harry Kerr invests the lad with an attractive good nature while Jessica Clark keeps her from being just a pawn by playing her as a modern teenager, in equal parts petulant, love-sick and just plain horny. 

In the subplot, Daniel Gosling cleverly keeps the rich old man with a young wife from being just the butt of an extended dirty joke by holding our sympathy throughout, while Kirsty Besterman nicely slips in early hints that his spouse isn't fully at home in the antagonistic personality she's assumed. 

But all these fine individual performances would amount to nought if the whole production didn't hit and sustain exactly the right comic tone, and director Jessica Swale is particularly to be congratulated for guiding her entire cast to the same level of broad-but-not-too-broad acting, punching up and underlining every joke without ever breaking the heightened reality they create. 

Swale's directorial hand is so sure that she can even gild the lily with impunity, adding sight gags borrowed from Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers to a hiding-the-girl-behind-a-screen scene that raises the farce to laugh-out-loud levels. 

Swale and musical director Laura Forrest Hay have also added some original songs that are so in the spirit of the original and so enrich the comedy that Sheridan is probably kicking himself in his grave for not having thought of them himself.

Period comedy is such a fragile thing that a production that doesn't get everything exactly right can be deadly. This one gets everything right and is an uninterrupted delight.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The School For Scandal - Park Theatre 2013 

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