Theatre review: The Rivals at the Arcola, E8

Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals

Nick Le Prevost as Sir Anthony and Gemma Jones as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals - Credit: Archant

This plush, effervescent staging of Richard Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals represents a first for Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Featuring a sterling cast including Gemma Jones and Justin Edwards, never before has the venue produced a late Restoration piece.

Undeterred and metered with respect to the source, the full rip-roaring, winding and contorting duplicities of Sheridan’s 240-year-old penmanship are brought skilfully to life.

Set in the city streets of Bath, various constituents are sent on a wild and heady collision course.

It is one where culture, love and order will be packed into a clinical blender and offered up for all to see.

At its centre are two illicit lovers, Captain Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) and Lydia Languish (Jenny Rainsford). They face the promise of societal disdain for the incongruent class status between them.

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The heart’s true desires should not be ignored, however, and they scheme to navigate around the incompatible wishes of their respective elders.


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With a seamstress’ expert stitch, the first three acts of The Rivals rack up a finely embroidered plot, before the final two acts see the real fun begin, as the audience observes the stitches coming apart in mirth-filled mayhem.

With a plump runtime, there are some sections that would benefit from neat trimming.

With that complaint aside, you’re left with the overall impression that Sheridan’s language is as dizzyingly rich today as it would have been when it was first staged in 1775.

For this particular production, success is also found in punchy scene changes done with a sprinkling of humour and song.

All throughout the play, there are immersive nods and winks to the audience, and there is much to relish in the delicious, sparky repartee between Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost) and his son Jack, with Le Prevost coming close to stealing every scene in which he appears. Gemma Jones is also predictably wonderful as the matriarch Mrs Malaprop.

An old classic that has much to offer modern audiences, The Rivals has enough chutzpah, joie de vivre and good-natured charm to win round the most sullen and unwilling of theatre goers.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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