One of the greatest joys of the British theatre in the 21st century has been the rise of the playwright Richard Bean, whose One Man Two Guvnors stands out as one of the true comedy highlights of the past twenty years. Now, in collaboration with Oliver Chris, who also starred in that play, he has taken another old play and given it a modern update – this time, Sheridan’s The Rivals, which has been inventively shaken up and repositioned in Sussex in 1940, where Churchill has requisitioned Malaprop Mansion as an RAF base where our brave chaps are taking flight daily to shoot down their German enemies, or, rather, scrambling their spitfires, pressing the tit and bagging a Jerry (thanks to the helpful glossary of terminology in the programme.)
If you know The Rivals, there’s a lot of fun to be gained by comparing Sheridan’s characters with Bean & Chris’ modern equivalents. We still have the braggart Sir Anthony Absolute paying court to Mrs Malaprop. We still have Young Absolute trying to woo Lydia Languish who only has eyes for another, whom Absolute impersonates (in an amusing northern switch, Ensign Beverley becomes Dudley Scunthorpe). Julia and Faulkland are still in love, Sir Lucius O’Trigger the Irish baronet in love with Lydia is now Bikram “Tony” Khattri, a Sikh pilot, and Lydia’s maid Lucy is still up to no good. Today, Mrs Malaprop’s lexicographical mishaps have taken a turn for the worse and the fourth wall is broken more than ever, and the writers surprise us with what could be a sad ending, if only the rest of the tone of the play wasn’t so buoyant.
It’s all presented in a slightly larger-than-life style; the gardens and boudoir of Malaprop Mansion are colourfully realised in Mark Thompson’s set design and his military uniforms for the characters are crisp and convincing. The direction is fast and furious, and to say it’s played for laughs is an understatement. That’s because, deep down, apart from the surprisingly moving last five minutes, “laughs” are basically all there is. The play constantly bombards us with so much joking, wordplay, physical comedy or any combination of the three, that there is no time to take breath between them. Inevitably, some of the jokes don’t land, whereas others land beautifully. There are some brilliantly funny sequences, primarily between Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, but there are also several scenes that languish (geddit) and don’t hit the spot.
Caroline Quentin is rapidly becoming one of our grandes dames of theatre, and she rises beautifully to the challenge of getting every other word wrong as Mrs Malaprop. It must be so difficult to continuously, deliberately, say the wrong word – your brain must be going nineteen to the dozen trying to correct yourself. She does some fabulous pratfalls, and even if they’ve given her way too many malapropisms (my favourites were clitoris and Mexican), it’s still a terrific comedy performance. She’s partnered with a lot of comic bluster from Peter Forbes as the pantomimish baronet Sir Anthony Absolute, channelling his Ronnie Barker Hark at Barker persona from the 1960s. Like everything else in this show, it lacks subtlety, but the characterisation is spot on!
Impossible to tell if this made a difference to the energy of the show, but for our performance we saw George Kemp as Jack Absolute, in what I suspect may have been quite a last minute change, judging from the very supportive round of applause to him from the rest of the cast and his facial expression that said phew! during curtain call. He certainly looks the part, very dapper and heroic, and gave a very good performance. Kelvin Fletcher is also excellent as the fitter Dudley Scunthorpe, all engine oil and short vowels, and it was entertaining (if not vital to the plot) to have a dance number where Mr Fletcher could exercise his Strictly credentials.
Kerry Howard provides a crowd-pleasing performance as the mischievous and wise-beyond-her-status maid Lucy, pointing out Khattri’s poetic plagiarisms, and indulging in a rather sweet game of Hide The Duck with Dudley. I was slightly put off by her vocal characterisation being straight from the Catherine Tate stable, but then Ms Tate does so many characters that sometimes similarities may be inevitable. Natalie Simpson is a delightfully gung-ho Lydia Languish, and there’s great support from Jordan Metcalfe as the wilting Roy and Helena Wilson as his innamorata Julia (who has probably the best line in the show), James Corrigan as the never-give-up Bob Acres and Tim Steed as Brian Coventry, the senior RAF officer who’s clearly holding back a secret, and whose life at base might become more interesting with the revelation that one of the new fighter pilots is “a Brian too”, nudge nudge, wink wink.
For all the effort that’s put into the show, and for all its excellent pedigrees, there is something about it that somehow, unfortunately, just doesn’t quite work. It’s the old sum of the parts not equalling the whole kind of thing. I guess it’s possible to just try too hard to be funny; less is more, and all that. It’s the kind of show that Mrs Chrisparkle would describe as relentless, which is not a compliment, although oddly she actually enjoyed it more than me. If the National Theatre were expecting the next One Man Two Guvnors, they’ll be disappointed, but nevertheless it’s certainly full of derring-do and frequently titillates your beer-lever.
Production photos by Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Four They’re Jolly Good Fellows!