Sometimes going to the theatre is like luxuriating in a steaming foamy bath – a lavish sensual pleasure that is not "good for you" in any way at all. This is such a production.
Tim Luscombe's staging is a sumptuous, richly-costumed affair within a minimalist set, lending the garish apparel a cartoon-like quality. If Disney in its heyday had animated The Rivals, this is not far from what it might have looked like. Even the curtain call, in which the cast groove and pose to some heavy Regency rhythms in a weird blend of Bob Fosse and Jane Austen, feels like something that would be perfectly at home in the unique reality of the Magic Kingdom.
In this heightened, looking-glass version of Regency Bath, even the absurdities of country bumpkin Bob Acres (James Loye) and Hibernian hothead Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Roger Barclay) seem perfectly at home. Eileen Battye's slightly creepy and unusually melancholic Mrs Malaprop is more Cruella de Vil than Lady Bracknell as she scurries across the stage like a prolix spider. Malcolm Rennie seizes the part of rumbustious, choleric Sir Anthony Absolute and joyously rolls in it like a puppy in a fresh cowpat, fully exploiting – and justifying – the licence the role grants an actor.
Rennie's is but one of an array of exquisite performances, highlights of which include Jonathan Aris's resolutely wimpish Faulkland and Sophie Duval's scheming lady's maid. These may be my personal favourites, but there are no lowlights in this display of high quality ensemble acting. The performances never slip into pure grotesque: true to the script, one still has a sense of the humanity underlying the caricatures.
This production neither plays it too safe nor seeks the extremes of the avant-garde; the kind one hopes for from a theatre such as the Salisbury Playhouse. As the Playhouse celebrates its 25th birthday, it shows why Britain needs provincial theatres producing their own plays, offering a middle way between the high art of London's creative powerhouses and the vanilla mediocrity of most commercial productions. As so many provincial theatres are becoming merely waystops for low-calorie rehashes of West End blockbusters, it is good to know there are some beacons like the Playhouse out there for us non-metropolitans.
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