Deborah Warner is a veteran director but the programme notes remind us she's a virtual novice at directing comedy. I wish I could say it doesn't show in her School for Scandal but I'm afraid it does. There's nowhere near enough laughs in 3 and a quarter hours and a great cast usually posessed of perfect comic timing - including Katherine Parkinson and Harry Melling - seem to have been encouraged to drag out their lines as long as possible (a dangerous ask when your cast includes Alan Howard, who'll do that anyway - at times here he takes longer to utter a syllable than most people need for a full sentence.) The most obvious thing about this Restoration comedy is that Warner has dispensed with the period trappings, continuing the "rock concert" aesthetic of her Mother Courage at the National a couple of years ago, complete with Brechtian captions. The concept is fine, in fact I find it much preferable to the ultra-traditional Rivals we got a few months back, and Jeremy Herbert's expressionistic set designs are brilliant. But the attempt to give the play contemporary relevance (costumes are mostly period but sometimes modern-dress, and props are largely modern) is heavy handed and worse, actively gets in the way of telling the story for the first hour. The detailed synopsis in the programme (which is, unfortunately, necessary) starts by saying how intricate the story is. A shame that for the first two acts the high concept of the production is so distracting that I was left with little idea what was going on, or indeed what any of the characters' relationships to each other were.
For the first two acts this was a strong contender for my Shit List at the end of the year but by the third things improve as Leo Bill's Charles finally arrives and brings a new energy into the production, he and John Shrapnel play off each other well. After the interval this improved tone continues, with the story finally being allowed to take precedence over the staging. It's much more enjoyable than the first half and would be even more so if, as an audience member unfamiliar with the story, you weren't having to retrospectively put together what had been going on in the preceding acts. I actually love the aesthetic Warner brings to this show, I just wish it had been used to tell the story rather than drawing attention to itself; and while I simply don't think this production works, I think it could be an interesting jumping-off point for future revivals in genres that, like Restoration comedy, are often seen as operating within very strict confines. This may be unlikely in the short term though as attendance doesn't look great (though the Barbican's newly-inflated ticket prices must take some of the blame for that.) With all three circles closed and tickets upgraded, there still weren't anywhere near enough people to fill the Stalls.
The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is booking until the 18th of June at the Barbican Theatre.