After a bit of a break over New Year's it's my first theatre trip of 2011. It's a West End trip and a theatre, the TRH, that I didn't visit once in 2010 (both the shows that ran there were ones I'd already seen) and which now hosts Sheridan's The Rivals. Peter Hall's production is a slightly shortened version which mixes elements from three different manuscripts of the play but still comes in at two-and-a-half hours. Things are almost completely derailed right from the opening scene with Thomas the coachman, because if Martin Bishop were any hammier he'd be taking on the title role in Babe. Fortunately the character doesn't appear again but the casting is still a mixed bag. Of the main characters, my biggest problem was with Robyn Addison, who gives us a particularly harsh, bitchy Lydia Languish - her interpretation has all the character's self-involvement but none of the dippy fantasising, leaving us with a romantic heroine it's impossible to root for. By contrast Annabel Scholey was never my favourite Being Human alumnus but her Julia is a highlight, much more human and endearing, someone the audience can get behind much more than her cousin.
The big star casting is the reunion of sitcom couple Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. Bowles' Sir Anthony Absolute worried me at first but settled into the role, while Keith's Mrs Malaprop is a bit of a grotesque, powdered to within an inch of her life and covered in far too many beauty spots. As for the character's most famous feature, she doesn't oversell the malapropisms although I did miss Celia Imrie's interpretation of the same character, with its utter confidence in the audience's ability to spot the joke without spelling it out. In fact despite my trying not to, I found it hard not to compare to last year's much smaller-scale but much more inventive production in Southwark. To be fair to this cast though there's memorable turns from Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Keiron Self as Bob Acres, Carlyss Peer as Lucy and Tony Gardner as the never-satisfied Faulkland, who you just want to shake as he repeatedly sees the glass half empty regardless of what his beloved Julia does. Simon Higlett's set is a permanently overcast Royal Crescent in Bath, the reason behind its grimness was never that clear to me (perhaps it's to explain Lydia's love of disappearing into romantic fantasy, but since Addison didn't really play this no wonder it gets lost.) Overall I wasn't expecting anything other than a fairly "safe" West End production so I can't say I was disappointed but the whole thing does feel rather predictable and as a result while there's laughs to be had there's little danger of your sides splitting.
The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is booking until the 26th of February at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.