The Rivals


Martin Happer and Emma Slipp. Credit: Tim Matheson
Martin Happer, Emma Slipp and Scott Bellis
Credit: Tim Matheson

At The Cultch until January 23, 2016

Posted January 3, 2016

As sparkly as a glass of champagne, The Rivals bubbles over with wicked wit, silly jealousies, hilariously mangled language and mistaken identities. Nothing as déclassé as a gut-buster, it’s a well-bred rib-tickler from the opening scene with Miss Lydia Languish (luscious Emma Slipp) in her bubble bath right down to the little jig that Mrs. Malaprop (marvelous Gabrielle Rose) breaks into at the end.

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775, The Rivals opened in London’s Covent Garden, closed the following day after being trashed by critics and audience alike. It was re-written and opened eleven days later to at least one rave review, written by Sheridan himself. A brash 24-year-old, Sheridan claimed the play would “stand foremost in the list of modern comedies” and, his overwhelming self-esteem aside, he was right.

Directing for Blackbird Theatre, Johnna Wright shifts the action from the powdered, bewigged 18th century stage to the Edwardian 1900s. David Roberts provides a pretty set that doubles as an English garden as well as various indoor locations. Lovely period- appropriate costumes are designed by Sheila White.

The Rivals is deliciously silly but there are a few reminders of the now unacceptable way things were: parents or guardians marrying off their daughters or wards to men not necessarily to the women’s liking. And mocking women’s literacy was common. “Her brain’s turned by reading”, scoffs Sir Anthony Absolute (Duncan Fraser) of Miss Lydia.

Gabrielle  Rose and Duncan Fraser Credit: Tim Matheson
Gabrielle Rose and Duncan Fraser
Credit: Tim Matheson

Lydia, a voracious reader of Harlequin-style novels, is a hopeless romantic. She has fallen for Ensign Beverley, a poor military man; Beverley, however, is actually Captain Jack Absolute (Martin Happer), the son and heir of wealthy, aristocratic Sir Anthony. Wanting to be sure Lydia loves him for himself and not for his money, Jack has been posing as Beverley. Jack’s inheritance, however, is contingent upon marrying whomever his father choses.

Lydia, too, forfeits her considerable inheritance if she refuses to marry whomever her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, sets her sights on. Lydia fancies marrying Beverly: “How charming poverty will be with him.” Slipp’s Lydia is amusingly theatrical and given to feigning a cold shoulder or an icy glare.

Sheridan takes great pleasure in poking fun at everyone, not maliciously but fondly. Mr. Faulkland, (John Emmet Tracy) is hopelessly in love with sensible Miss Julia Melville (Luisa Jojic) but he’s hilariously insecure. Faulkland is a mass of nerves and with a single look or an exquisite bit of timing Tracy has the audience in stitches.

Fraser, as Sir Anthony, also has the audience laughing. His description of Lydia to Captain Jack is a master class in comedy. “Her lips. Her lips.” “Her cheeks. Her cheeks” are not funny but delivered by Fraser you can see lecherous old Sir Anthony getting himself hot and bothered as he rattles on.

Scott Bellis is the ready-to-rumble O’Trigger, here portrayed as a southern USA gentleman rather than the Irishman Sheridan originally wrote; Kirk Smith is country bumpkin Bob Acres, the unwilling duelist and Jenny Paterson-Wasko doubles as Lucy and David.

Martin Happer and Gabrielle Rose Credit: Tim Matheson
Martin Happer and Gabrielle Rose
Credit: Tim Matheson

The star of The Rivals is always Mrs. Malaprop and Gabrielle Rose joins the ranks of those who have completely charmed audiences with malapropisms. The best of these might be, ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness” or, speaking of Lydia, “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” Apple-cheeked and almost bursting her bodice, Rose shows again her amazing range from, for example, Elizabeth I in Elizabeth Rex to Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

With The Rivals, Blackbird Theatre Company, under the artistic direction of John Wright, celebrates its 10th anniversary and offers a delightfully frothy entertainment to banish the January cold and to warm the heart. To quote Mrs. Malaprop, “Lead the way. We’ll proceed”. To the theatre, to the theatre.