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Watermill Theatre - The Rivals

15th March to 21st April 2018

Review from Newbury Theatre.

When Sheridan wrote The Rivals in 1774, he wrapped it in a Prologue and Epilogue, written in rhyming couplets. Beth Flintoff, who adapted this version of the play, updated the Prologue and Epilogue with witty references to today’s world. As for the play itself, she has cut it down to just over two hours and amended the text to make it more understandable to modern audiences while keeping the spirit of the 18th century language.

We end up with eight main characters, but you’ll have to pay attention to understand who’s who.

Sir Anthony Absolute is father to Captain Jack Absolute (who is also masquerading as Ensign Beverley) and guardian of Julia, who is the cousin of Lydia Languish whose aunt and guardian is Mrs Malaprop. Lydia (a rich heiress) is in love with Beverley, believing him to be poor. Julia is in love with Mr Faulkland but their relationship is beset with doubts on both sides. Country gentleman Bob Acres is in love with Lydia, who finds him odious. Sir Lucius O’Trigger has a sort of social-media-type offline relationship with the non-existent Delia, thinking she is Lydia but she is actually Mrs Malaprop. And that’s just the start of Act 1. It gets more complicated.

The Rivals is a comedy of manners, but there are certainly elements of farce in it. As such, the pace of the action and dialogue needs to be fast, and apart from a few fluffs of words, it was.

Michael Thomas (last seen on the Watermill stage in Lettice and Lovage in 2012) is Sir Anthony: belligerent, temperamental and with the right degree of bluster. Ncuti Gatwa is Captain Jack and you can see why Lydia (Emma Denly) fell for him: he’s handsome, charming and with a ready smile, and as Lydia’s feelings change we can see it oh so clearly in her face.

Julia St John relishes the part of Mrs Malaprop – she sails blithely on, indifferent to her mistakes. It’s hard to keep up with them all, but I bet calamari wasn’t on the menu in 1774.

Charlotte Bate as Julia (also Prologue, Epilogue and Lucy) and James Mack as Faulkland are the infuriating will-they-won’t-they couple; you want to give them a good slap and tell them to get on with it.

Daniel Abelson and Christopher Logan have nice character parts as Bob Acres – pusillanimous in the dual duel (you need to see it) – and Sir Lucius.

Designer James Cotterill gives us a bare stage with just two chairs and some curtains. OK, not just ‘some curtains’: multiple floor to ceiling opulent satin-like curtains in shades of pink and purple, changing with each scene and, well, wow. Plus some sumptuous costumes and some surprising wigs.

How to sum up director Jonathan Humphreys’ production? The asides to get an audience reaction didn’t work the night I was there (they need a more lively audience) but Beth Flintoff’s clever adaptation gives the play a new lease of life supported by a strong group of actors.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Catch them if you can

Beth Flintoff's laugh-out-loud adaptation of Sheridan's comedy of manners

The Rivals, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until April 21

This tangled story of romance was Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first successful play, performed in 1775 and written because he was desperately in need of funds. Many adaptations were to follow, including a musical version in the 1930s and the latest by Beth Flintoff is a frothy, laugh-aloud showcase for the talents of the playwright and this excellent cast.

Sir Anthony Absolute (Michael Thomas) has come to Bath to arrange the marriage of his son, Captain Jack (Ncuti Gatwa), to Lydia (Emma Denly) who is addicted to romantic fiction and intends to marry for love rather than money. She falls for Beverley, a penniless soldier – or so she thinks – in reality the 'poor soldier' is wealthy Captain Jack in disguise. Gatwa's wonderfully expressive face as he worries about the difficulties arising from this situation, including the prospect of having to fight a duel with himself, is sheer delight.

Meanwhile, cousin Julia (Charlotte Bate) is in an on-off relationship with Faulkland (James Mack) who adores her, but continually puts imaginary obstacles in the way of their love to such an extent that she eventually will have nothing more to do with him.

Then there is the wonderful Mrs Malaprop, Lydia's autocratic and linguistically-challenged aunt (Julia St John) who speaks of her niece as being "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" and instructs her to "illiterate him [Beverley] from your memory". So many malapropisms superbly delivered and all hilarious – if you were quick enough to catch them.

Mrs Malaprop believes that Irish Sir Lucius (Christopher Logan) loves her and she has sent him notes signed 'Delia' However, he thinks they are from the beautiful Lydia and arrives to claim her. The tangled knot increases, added to by country bumpkin Bob (Daniel Abelson), another of Lydia's suitors whose efforts at romance are doomed to failure.

The backdrop to this complicated web sees the stage framed by magnificently-draped curtains which change in number depending upon in which withdrawing room the action is taking place.

The introductory verse, spoken by a smiling Charlotte Bate is not only welcoming, but has the effect of including the audience as part of the whole and we were instructed to forget everything – even that other tangled political situation beginning with B – and simply enjoy the evening. And we did. Very much.

Not to be missed.


There are reviews from The Stage ("an enjoyably light and modern affair... charismatic central performances enhance an enjoyable and contemporary production of Sheridan’s comedy" - ★★★★), the Henley Standard ("the Watermill’s adaptation wrings every ounce of delight out of the original text — with an absolutely stellar cast... it would be impossible to write a review of the whole cast’s performances without peppering it with superlatives"), Daily Info ("the lovers that head up the cast are exceedingly good... an enjoyable theatrical treat at the Watermill... where the play stands out is in a trio of very good performances which makes this a fun evening for all"), PocketSize Theatre ("the enthusiastic cast make it an enjoyable evening for a classic play that defined comical mistaken word use" - ★★★), TheSpyInTheStalls ("Watermill Theatre has a sparkling hit on its hands... a feast of high-blown cod grandiloquence is delivered with crisp authority by a talented cast" - ★★★★★).