Arts: A new lesson in politics

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DECLAN DONNELLAN'S staging of The School for Scandal is a production fit to set before a King - which is just as well, because that is precisely where he places Sheridan's comedy in this theatrically telling rethink. In a radical departure from dusty rep practice, the piece is presented as a sort of play-within-a-play, performed by a louche company of actors and actresses in Nick Ormerod's vast, shadowy warehouse of a dissolute drinking den.

The guest of honour is the bibulous young Prince of Wales, a friend of Sheridan, and the mood is antic, a mix of respectfulness and raunchiness. The celebrated moment late in the comedy, where a screen with maps is dashed aside exposing a tissue of social hypocrisy, is anticipated right at the start here, in a little satirical prologue, where a screen bearing a map of Great Britain is kicked over to reveal one of the frizzy- wigged actresses in the costume and pose of Britannia.

As she waggles her trident at the Prince and spouts the Prologue in gruff, downmarket tones, you realise that the Royal spectator is being invited to view The School for Scandal as a "state of the nation" expose, a warning about where Britain is heading with its culture of prurient prudery fostered by a muck-raking press.

Joyous dividends are paid by this idea of a raffish company performing the play and, when not directly involved in a scene, remaining as audience or in diagrammatically significant positions all over the various levels of the set. Having seen the cast (so to speak) uncorseted, you can appreciate the penalties of the rigid psychic corseting necessary to become a Lady Sneerwell or a Mrs Candour.

Playing these roles, Deborah Findlay and Celia Imrie excellently signal how close to hysteria such lives are bound to run. Never seen without a bundle of scandal sheets under her arm, Imrie's candour is like a jumpily avid train-spotter who affects to lament the very existence of a rail system. As Sneerwell, Findlay flounces around in a cold fever of spoilt- child pettishness, and with the irritable boredom of someone only jerked alive by the latest calumny.

The strong company atmosphere is also the perfect way to predispose an audience to the extreme sociability of the good-natured libertine Charles Surface, here understood to be played by Sheridan. Not that Matthew Macfadyen needs any help. His performance is a masterpiece of comic charm. Even in the trickiest situations, his tipsy Charles always feels the need to lie flat on the floor, a position he assumes with an exquisite matter- of-factness as though it were the most natural thing in the world. For attractiveness, Macfadyen is matched by Emma Fielding's superb Lady Teazle, here presented as an Irish colleen turned, by a smart marriage, into a vision by Sir Joshua Reynolds: in the witty contrariness Fielding conveys so wonderfully to be a token of underlying affection for her mate, you also see her as first cousin to Shakespeare's Beatrice.

The final line-up delightfully emphasises the growing power of the press. The cast deliver their final run of speeches as though they are dictating them to the scribbling Uriah Heepish figure of Snake (Robert Goodale), a press-informer who, for money, has brought about the happy ending. A scandal if this production doesn't find a West End producer - and Snake can quote me on that.

To 24 Oct (01789 295623)

Paul Taylor