Three years after BBC producer Hal Burton staged Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, he mounted a production of the playwright’s other great comedy, The Rivals. First presented in 1775, when Sheridan was just twenty-four, it is a contrived tale of love, mistaken identity and the mangling of the English language. A print was shown at BFI Southbank tonight in the UnLOCked season of recent rediscoveries from the Library of Congress archive.
Burton takes the unique credit ‘Designed and produced by…’ but the sparse settings are merely functional with (lavish costumes aside) minimal production values. Particularly unfortunate for an audience today is an austere and artifical Bath townscape. Compressed into just eighty minutes, the text is not so much adapted for television as shredded for it, even as the rhetorical complexity of Sheridan’s wordplay is preserved. The effect is to topple the unlikely plotting into the realm of the absurdly laughable.
With only one or two exceptions, the performances are played at a pitch to hit the back of the Hackney Empire circle. As a consequence, the cast come through the screen with the force of the broadest farce — and yet (in contrast to Charley’s Aunt (BBC, 1965), screened at BFI Southbank last week) the drama is played without a laugh track. Even so, the effect has echoes of situation comedy, with even the supposedly confidential asides of the players seemingly shouted into the camer tube. So what’s to like?
Several of the cast channel their youthful energies into effective characterisations. Dinsdale Landen is a charmingly baby-faced Captain Jack Absolute and Jeannie Carson (although a decade too old to play a seventeen-year-old) is winsomely charming. Peter Woodthorpe is a gloriously camp Bob Acres, but the star turn — of course — is Betty Marsden‘s Mrs Malaprop. Her understated performance (at least when compared with the frenetic playing around her) is the more effective for its restraint. Sheridan coined some of the most cast-iron lines in English drama — and Ms Marsden most definitely makes the most of them.