Muck-raking and spin are always with us, so there's never any problem with topicality when reviving Sheridan's great 1777 comedy, The School for Scandal. Yet this play - whose theme, as Shaw declared, is the superiority of the good-natured libertine to the ill-natured hypocrite - often finds directors struggling to achieve the right balance between its satire and its sentiment.
There are revivals that belittle it as a costumed romp, and there have been radical antidotes to that approach, as when Declan Donnellan and the RSC tried to recreate a sense of the huge political stir this comic exposure of falsity caused when it first appeared, by presenting the piece as a cautionary play-within-a-play staged for the young Prince of Wales and future George IV.
So Richard Beecham's production at Salisbury Playhouse makes a refreshing change. It has sting and a feel for what is at stake emotionally, while neither prettifying the proceedings nor overpowering them with historical context.
The look is one of stripped-back elegance. The mood is one of slightly febrile urgency. Spurred on by jagged harpsichord music, the excellent cast scurry, with their noses in the latest gossipy public prints, along the gallery and down to the stage.
With décor reduced to a semicircle of chairs, the competitive posturing of Lady Sneerwell's clique has an almost cartoon-like clarity. The salient feature of the production, though, is its unrelenting pace. These people launch into character assassination as though their lives depended on it.
Madeleine Worrall is splendid as the upstart Lady Teazle, desperate for the scandalmongers' approval and yet so seductively intriguing (in both senses) in her spats with her husband that Philip Franks's sympathetic Sir Peter is more to be pitied than ridiculed for his infatuation.
When exposed in the famous screen-scene, Worrall brings ringing conviction to the wife's sudden conscience-stricken conversion and then deliciously back-tracks in the Epilogue, where she expresses discontent at unfashionable rural life in her own English accent. Recommended.
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