Theatre: SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL; Chichester Festival Theatre

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There's a mildly disconcerting moment at the start of Richard Cottrell's production of School for Scandal when a smartly dressed woman in early middle age wanders on to the stage, looking a bit lost, and you experience a flicker of uncertainty - is this an actor or a punter? Actor, as it turns out: Abigail McKern, speaking an updated prologue full of jokes about scandalmongering newspapers that smear the private lives of actors, MPs and even members of the Royal Family over their front pages.

The main thing this prologue tells you is that Cottrell has a pretty shrewd idea of who his audiences are - hence McKern can blend in with them easily - and he knows that Chichester audiences don't, on the whole, look for challenging new readings of theatrical experiences that will prompt them to re-examine their lives. They go in search of reliably entertaining plays with some actors they've heard of.

That's not to say that they don't have standards, though; and to judge from some of the dissatisfied muttering I caught during the interval, this featherweight School for Scandal falls a little short of them. Certainly, you'd have to be very undiscriminating not to be a little dispirited by the spectacle of so many actors cruising along in second gear. You get the impression that their agents booked them into this as a kind of rest cure - you'll have a nice, quiet time in Chichester, they told them: sure, you'll need to be on stage a bit, but there's no acting involved.

So we get Dora Bryan simpering and fluttering on autopilot, sometimes inaudibly, through Mrs Candour; and a bland Honor Blackman as an utterly unthreatening, unmalicious Lady Sneerwell, who might as well be trying to organise the church flower-rota as trying to undo anybody's reputation. Ian Carmichael, in particular, seems at sea as Sir Peter Teazle. He's plainly a good 20 years too old for the part, which gives an unnecessary force to Lady Teazle's marital complaints - it hardly seems plausible that her only reason for wanting a lover is to be "in the fashion". Dinsdale Landen's jovial nabob, Sir Oliver Surface, is better casting, but you look back a little sadly to the days when he played something other than Dinsdale Landen.

So it's left to the younger members of the cast to redeem the situation. Abigail McKern is typically pert and intelligent as Lady Teazle; but the best moments all involve the Surface brothers - thankfully, since the conflict between Joseph's sham virtue and Charles's open-hearted rakishness embodies Sheridan's main point: that the real defence against scandal is to make your life an open book.

As Joseph, Richard Garnett's breakneck, furious asides create a powerful sense of the tension between his virtuous manner and the constantly suppressed nastiness underneath; while Tim Wallers gives Charles a likeable sense that he regards all the social manoeuvring going on around him as a joke in rather dubious taste. And in this case, you have to agree with him.

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