THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Tuesday 24th July, 2012
This revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners is an absolute peach. From the elegant panelled set to the sumptuous costumes and wigs, Jamie Lloyd’s production brings a taste of the eighteenth century to life. But this is much more than a period piece. Sheridan’s script crackles with wit and is effulgent with epigrams that seem painfully pertinent to the society of today. It is also interesting to see how much Sheridan is a forerunner of Wilde.
The play exposes to us the idle classes whose main source of amusement is the denigration of their peers through malicious and scandalous gossip. We laugh along with this bitch-fest but we also laugh at the hypocrisy of the main purveyors of this gossip, these assassins of character who show little regard for facts. You see it on Twitter every day, only the targets are not the idle rich but the celebrities who fill the media with their supposed antics. If you’re a stranger to Twitter, think along the lines of Mock The Week, where the same shorthand jokes are repeated on a weekly basis, based on some perceived trait or reported incident.
The opening scenes are like tucking into a box of fondant fancies – delectable, irresistible but you know you shouldn’t be so self-indulgent. Then the main action of the plot begins to unfold: an absentee uncle returns and puts his two nephews to a test of their mettle. An old man comes to an understanding with his WAG young bride. It is an ebullient, effervescent bit of fun, a bottle of champagne, and the acting style – the mannered delivery, the poses and posturing – is perfectly pitched to keep the thing zipping along, and the bubbly flowing.
An excellent ensemble provides an indefatigable source of delight. Maggie Steed is superb as hypocritical monster, Mrs Candour; Grant Gillespie, dressed like Mozart’s wayward little brother, out-camps everyone as preening ninny, Sir Benjamin Backbite; Ian McNeice has an amusing bluster as scheming Uncle Oliver; and the swoonworthy Nick Harman is charming as affable rogue Charles. But for me, the comedy crown goes to Edward Bennett as Joseph Surface who, in the second half, delivers a comic performance of energy and barely-contained frenzy as he tries to keep a lid on the situation that is unravelling before him. He goes from the studied sneering mannerisms of the age to a frantic Basil Fawlty in full flight, skipping and grinning with increasing desperation as he tries to maintain his public persona. I also loved Susannah Fielding as the insensitive and selfish Lady Teazle, for whom fashion and being ‘in’ are all – like a ‘character’ from TOWIE but in infinitely superior clothes; but in truth, the entire cast is responsible for a fast-moving, almost farcical couple of hours of the rarest quality.
Director Jamie Lloyd handles everything with a light-touch. There are some lovely bits of business here, from the campery of the servants to business with picture frames. The classic scene when Lady Teazle is discovered eavesdropping behind a screen was superbly done – the shocked reactions were heightened to just the right amount to make it credible within the onstage world. The play holds up a mirror to today, where gossip thrives in new media and old and warns us against believe, spreading and embellishing false report. It is an affectionate condemnation of a distasteful aspect of human nature rather than a moralising cautionary tale – and I’ll tell you this, and don’t keep it to yourself but a more stylish and lively evening in the theatre you’d be hard pressed to find.