I love a good laugh, me. Things that make me laugh until I feel dizzy include a joke about the Pope and a bloke called Dave, a video of a Brummy toddler doing the ice bucket challenge, and Rik the People’s Poet from The Young Ones. I haven’t previously thought to add any 18th century comedy posh women to that list. But thanks to a new production of Sheridan’s The Rivals at Liverpool Playhouse, that situation has now been rectified.
It’s not as if The Rivals is a hidden gem that’s just been unearthed. After all, the play’s word-mangling Mrs Malaprop is so famous that her name has become part of our language. Nothing new there. But if inadvertent word slippage was all The Rivals was about, it certainly wouldn’t have left me stumbling back to the car suffering from chortle-induced stomach ache.
I’m well aware that everybody already knows The Rivals is a funny play. But is it always this funny? I’ve never seen it before so I really don’t know. But this co-production between Liverpool Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and Glasgow Citizens Theatre – directed by Dominic Hill – takes the grotesquery of a classic Gillray cartoon, pumps it full of 21st century hot air, then bursts all that distended pomposity with a playing style that’s as sharp as a pin.
The Rivals is famous enough for us not to have to run through the plot here. Not that I knew the story before I went, but the taut knot of misdirected letters and mistaken identities – a satirical tangle that ties up an array of wealthy wasters in Regency Bath, and is pulled ever tighter by a few mischievous servants – is both enjoyably baffling and yet somehow simple to grasp. This riot of misunderstanding has now been delighting audiences for almost 250 years which, you might imagine, could mean it’s now no more than a well-loved museum piece. But by stirring in a few splashes of a very modern sensibility, it’s a classic that stays remarkably fresh.
In this production, that freshness derives from its soufflé-light presentation – its speedy pace, and a stripped-back stage slotted with picture frames and painted cloths designed by Tom Rogers – and a contemporary sense of comedic exaggeration that’s been added with an expert’s delicate touch.
The up-to-date satirical spice springs largely from the very fine cast. The production is rich with delicious comic turns, all the performers contributing a feast of individual flavours, but there’s no doubt about the zestiest ingredient on the plate. Lydia Languish, as played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, delivers one of the most inspired comic performances of this or any other year. We may still have a couple of months left before the pantos kick in, but I’ll be amazed if 2016 gives us another individual turn quite so funny.
Lydia Languish is rich, bored and ungrateful. With a head full of not much except the sentimental novels that she loves to devour, she yearns to elope with the kind of man who might have leapt from their pages, preferably someone passionate but poor. In response, wealthy Captain Jack Absolute poses as a penniless soldier in order to woo her, and this bluff lies at the play’s comic heart.
While the temptation would surely be to play Languish as a drippy teen drifter, limp with thoughts of an idealised form of love, here she appears as if plucked straight from an episode of TOWIE – dipped in 18th century powder and paint, naturally, but gurning and duck-pouting in the modern manner as if she’s the subject of an everlasting selfie. It’s a superlative display of mugging and eye-rolling, each grimace and groan timed to perfection.
After such an enjoyable evening, it does feel a little unfair to give Lydia Languish so much attention.
For instance, I loved watching arrogant Sir Anthony Absolute (Desmond Barrit) castigating his errant son while demolishing his breakfast; it’s a masterclass in harrumphing and gesticulation. And the bottomless romantic pessimism displayed by the anguished Faulkland (Nicholas Bishop) is so relentlessly, hilariously doom-laden that I thought the bloke in front of me might actually expire.
But if Lydia Languish isn’t quite a scene-stealer, there’s no doubt that she delivers the performance of the evening; the kind that you hear everyone guffawing over as they head back out into the dark.
All we need now is a Lydia Languish YouTube channel. I’m sure she’d earn more than her share of hits. Because in this age of empty fashion brands and conspicuous consumption – just like Regency Bath in fact – I bet her vlogging skills would blow the rest of them out of sight.
What: The Rivals
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: until October 29, 2016