Jack Absolute is the comically duplicitous, arch mischief-maker in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals which trades, typically, in love, farce, false identities and plenty of 18th-century social satire.
Writers Richard Bean and Oliver Chris have taken Sheridan’s comedy of manners as their inspiration and mashed it up with warm, nostalgic, Oh-So-British wartime humour. Directed by Emily Burns, the play takes place at Malaprop Mansions, temporarily housing a second world war RAF office, whose personnel include Jack (Laurie Davidson) and the woman of his dreams, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson), also a pilot.
The silliness and humour sometimes sparks but Sheridan’s razor sharp lines and social class critiques become mostly toothless in this transposition. The humour is, for the main, as over-familiar as the green pastures and rolling hills of the nicely compact set designed by Mark Thompson – we see the predictable punch-lines coming round the corner.
Davidson’s Jack is a generic, hapless hero, not disguising himself as the impoverished soldier Ensign Beverley, from Sheridan’s original, but pretending to be the working-class northern mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (whose real incarnation is played by Kelvin Fletcher) on whom Lydia has a desperate crush.
Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), in full military attire, seems to be channelling an upper-class version of Battery Sgt Major Williams from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. (“Be quiet, I’m shouting!”)
Criminally, Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin) – a character so ingeniously conceived that her name entered the lexicon – speaks with too many malapropisms, which diminishes their comic effect. She has a cake “to salivate my birthday”, mixes up clitoris with clematis, and it begins to sound increasingly strained. Others drop swear words, talk of erections and orgasms, and there are double meanings for “tits” and “trust engines” but the welter of double entendres sound twee and retro rather than risque, rather like a Carry On, Sheridan.
After the more successful The Corn Is Green, in the Lyttelton theatre, this is the second consecutive show at the National to glance nostalgically back at a bygone Britain and present a sentimentalised picture. For me, at almost three hours on its final preview night, this comedy felt forced, unoriginal and drawn out.
It is a shame because the play is very good on showing the war effort to have included commonwealth veterans in the form of an Australian pilot (albeit one who speaks in Aussie-isms much of the time) and an Indian pilot (“everyone calls me Tony because they can’t pronounce Bikram,” he says, in one sharp line) as well as Lydia’s position in the RAF.
There is a great series of skits featuring meddling maid Lucy (Kerry Howard) and the love letters she connivingly mis-delivers; a wonderful scene featuring the second comedy couple, Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) and Julia (Helena Wilson), expressing the illogicality of jealousy; and a great dance scene between Jack and Lydia. If only this fizzing comedy was sustained throughout.
The serious drama of war remains in the background except for a couple of moments, including a Battle of Britain enactment, but a late plot-turn into tragedy forces a lurching change of tone which does not feel earned, and has a jarring edge of emotional manipulation.
Sheridan’s play was originally halted in 1775 after some consternation over its bawdiness and its portrayal of the Irish character, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who is absent in this production. There are accounts of apples being thrown by audiences (Sheridan swiftly redrafted the play to great acclaim). No one is in fear of being pelted by flying apples this time. Blandness is the problem here – it is too safe and familiar to carry Sheridan’s potentially anarchic spirit of romp.
July 15, 2022 at 04:36AM Arifa Akbar