THEATRE / Polite society: Robert Hanks reviews The Old Devils at Chichester Festival Theatre

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Given its modern status as a surefire crowd-pleaser, it's hard to realise that when it first opened in 1775, The Rivals flopped badly - not least because of the perceived indelicacy of the humour. Sheridan not being a man to ignore popular feeling, audiences ever since have been watching a revised version, stripped of much of the innuendo.

One of the virtues of Richard Cottrell's production at Chichester is that it restores to the play some of its original ribaldry - so that, for instance, when Sir Anthony Absolute finds that the 'bauble' for Lydia his son Jack has hidden under his coat is actually a sword, he now advises him to, 'Show her you've got better baubles than that.'

That some of the original coarseness has been restored is pleasing, the more so in a production that otherwise verges on the over-polite. Not unnaturally, the double-act of Timothy West's splenetic Sir Anthony and Patricia Routledge's swooning, dysphasic Mrs Malaprop. But in hanging too much of the comedy on their familiar turns, Cottrell seems to have lost sight of the play's possibilities; and while it's a jolly enough evening, you never feel that the laughs are coming as thick and fast as they should.

Partly that's because, in James Simmons' Jack Absolute and Abigail Cruttenden's muppety Lydia Languish, the comedy is allowed to come across as traditional boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again stuff. Their relationship glosses over the play's implication that there is a natural antipathy between love and marriage - or at any rate, between romance and social conventions. With no tension, no real sense of much at stake, it threatens to become nothing more than a succession of comic turns. Mark Warman's intrusively anodyne music accentuates the blandness.

You're not given any sense, either, of the depth of the play's concern with books and language - it's not for nothing that Mrs Malaprop hopes Lydia will not be considered an illegible match, or warns her to illiterate her supposed poor ensign from her heart.

What does give weight to the production is Adam Godley and Emily Raymond's portrayal of the relationship between the sighing, sentimental Faulkland and the sensible Julia. Faulkland's compulsive neurosis makes him seem oddly modern, torn between worrying that Julia might be ill and resenting the fact that she isn't pining away without him; Woody Allen built his career on characters like this. But Godley's is in any case easily the most interesting and - West and Routledge aside - most assured performance on the stage. His only stumble comes in the scene when he pretends to Julia that he is on the run from the law - at this point, he seems too light and unconcerned, so that you wonder why Julia is fooled; and his ecstatic revelation that this was just the final test of her love, and she's passed, doesn't contrast enough.

William Osborne's Bob Acres is brilliantly throw- away, too; but the rest of the performances chase easy, instant laughs. Still, in trying to offer the audience immediate satisfaction, it can't be said that this Rivals is unfaithful to Sheridan; and if it isn't what Mrs Malaprop might call the pineapple of perfection, it's a reasonable grapefruit.

'The Rivals' continues at Chichester Festival Theatre (0243 781312). Sponsored by Mercury Communications.

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