Cliches? I avoid 'em like the plague. But sometimes I can't. Which is a way of saying that seeing this production at the Southwark Playhouse of Sheridan's play is like drinking champagne non-stop for three hours. It is a delight from beginning to end. I had never heard of director Jessica Swale and her Redhanded Theatre Company before, nor had I ever been to the Southwark Playhouse, tucked under a railway arch near London Bridge Station with the trains to Kent rumbling overhead. And the last time I saw a play by Sheridan on stage was so long ago that I can't remember it. After excellent reviews the production is now a sellout, but I was lucky to have booked before it opened, attracted by the idea of Celia Imrie playing Mrs Malaprop.
The play starts with the front of house staff squeezing the audience into their seats -- it's a bit like the Tokyo metro. As this is going on the actors appear, mill around and start chatting up the audience and asking those in the front row to hold one or two props. I was offered a late-night assignation which I reluctantly turned down on the grounds that I was probably too young for that sort of thing. Some theatregoers loathe any attempt to dissolve the invisible barrier between stage and audience, but when it's done well -- as it often is at Shakespeare's Globe -- it can be very effective. The important thing is that the director and the actors aren't just doing it to set up a few cheap laughs, but to open up a channel of empathy with the audience that helps the play to succeed. Once that channel is open, every brief aside, every raised eyebrow, every half-disguised wink of Celia Imrie's eyebrow is more effective. Part of the reason this production works so well is that it's a small venue, with one bank of raked seating facing a shallow but wide acting area. Every whisper and every gesture carries easily to the audience in a way that would be impossible in a big proscenium arch theatre. So to some extent the success of this show is down to what I call the Donmar Effect -- the enhanced sensation delivered by a small theatre.
Having long ago read The Rivals but never having seen it, I was abruptly reminded of what a masterpiece it is. But even an 18th century masterpiece can be very dull if it's badly performed, and this is a triumphant success. Productions in London fringe theatres often feature casts of uneven ability, but that's not the case here. Everyone from Celia Imrie and Robin Soans to the lesser known cast members is uniformly excellent. Every ounce of meaning is extracted from every line, the timing is impeccable and the style is faultless. Maria Aitken's book on Acting in High Comedy describes the 'high comedy slalom' which Sheridan creates for his actors -- a terrifying zig-zag of emotions which change in double-quick time. Charity Wakefield (Lydia Languish), Tom McDonald (Faulkland), Harry Hadden-Paton (Jack Absolute) and Christopher Logan (Bob Acres) manage this perfectly. Ella Smith as Julia has a slightly different task, because her character is essentially the 'straight man' who acts as a calm voice of reason amid the quicksilver emotions of her friends. The result is extremely funny (the first, some would say the only, requirement of stage comedy). The complicity with the audience set up at the start pays off brilliantly as we begin to share their jokes and subterfuges. I don't know what Stanislavsky would have made of it, but it certainly worked for me. It seems a bit patronising to give a special mention to the servants, but Jenni Maitland delivered a wonderful cameo as maidservant Lucy, avoiding the usual comic cliches. So did Sam Swainsbury, Cian Barry and Oliver Hollis as the male servants, playing guitar, violin and recorder as well. Were they paid extra? I hope so.
Keep a sharp eye open for Jessica Swale if you happen to be Yunnan, China, in 2010, because she's going to be directing Macbeth for an NGO called Youth Bridge Global. And watch out for her name as director when she comes back. I loved her intelligent approach to this play and I suspect she has drawn performances from some of her cast that they may not have known they were capable of.