Review: The Rivals – Theatre Royal Haymarket ✭✭✭

Martin Schurman reviews Peter Hall’s elegant revival of The Rivals, but wants more fire and passion than this production affords.

Penelope Keith in The Rivals at Theatre Royal Haymarket
Peter Bowles & Penelope Keith reunite as sparring partners in The Rivals

There is much to enjoy in Peter Hall’s graceful production of The Rivals. Simon Higlett’s set is classical in its simplicity, suggesting both the refined crescents of Bath, and the confined drawing rooms of the upper classes. It is beautifully lit, the costumes are sumptuous. But, from the moment the curtain rises, one cannot shake the feeling that Peter Hall is directing an opera rather than a play.

Oh, for a little sex appeal, or a little danger. This revival is traditional and pretty, yes, but it lacks fire. Beneath the surface there is little that disturbs the rarefied air of 18th Century Bath. Robyn Addison, as Lydia Languish, struggles with the text and affects a monotone delivery in order to express her languor. Tam Williams as her suitor extends his vocal range in the opposite direction, leaping up and down the register. They strike an odd contrast to the superb Ian Conningham as the servant Fag, the deliciously sardonic Tony Gardner as Faulkland, the more natural delivery of Carlyss Peer as the maid, and Annabel Schoely as Lydia’s friend and confidant, Julia. Even Kieron Self and Gerard Murphy as Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, broadly drawn comedic roles, milk their parts for all they are worth, but retain a natural delivery.

The Rivals is a wordy comedy, and much of the first Act is exposition and there is precious little action in the second to engage the audience beyond admiring the pretty costumes. But it is less about the action, thankfully, and more about the casting of Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop, and here, at least, this production excels. With Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith in the roles, the chemistry between them is positively infectious as they gently flirt their way through the proceedings. However, this is the gentle camaraderie of two old friends rather than a sexual tension. Bowles prowls the stage with his cane and laconic delivery, part pantomime villain, part lascivious uncle, while Keith eschews the usual campery and brings an affecting humanity to the role.

Ultimately even these two stalwarts fail to ignite the play. There are some marvellous bits of business, and it all bubbles along quite nicely, but it never manages to reach simmering point. It is elegant, yes, but it is too safe.
Running until 26th February
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