Maureen Lipman's splendidly ridiculous Mrs Malaprop suddenly comes over all serious. A case of too little, too late, says Jeffrey Wainwright
"Grammer in learning is like tyranny in government - confound the bitch I'll never be her slave." Thus the poet John Clare in the 19th century complaining about his publisher's "improvements" to his dialect verses.

It would be stretching a point to associate Clare and Sheridan's Mrs Malaprop as linguistic rebels, though it is of course because of her famous solecisms that she is picked out for ridicule, perhaps even pushed outside the play's social circle altogether. We tend to see this as deserved since her comeuppance results not from loyalty to non-received usage, but by striving to elevate her social standing along with her diction.

Braham Murray's new production of The Rivals closes by taking Mrs Malaprop's alienation seriously. Utterly humiliated, Maureen Lipman pronounces "men are all barbarians" (she does not get this wrong) and, instead of then "retiring" with most of the company, she storms off alone and does not reappear. She is a scheming, deluded, insensible woman of a certain age - and to clinch it she don't speak proper. But, we are suddenly asked to wonder - does she deserve this? Her contemporary, Sir Anthony, has all of her serious vices and more but, as a man, and more certain of his social position, he attracts no opprobrium - at least in the hale, man's mannish version of him given here by a forceful Tony Britton.

But before this moment I had not grasped that such an interpretation might be on the cards. Maureen Lipman plays Malaprop as a dippy grotesque, bouffant in all directions and with an exaggerated avian sharpness about the face that might just put us in mind of a recent Prime Minister - "female punctuation", as Mrs Malaprop put it (meaning punctiliousness), forbids her hinting further. We recognise some pathos in the wounded dignity with which she admits to the ludicrous love letters to Sir Lucius - "I own the soft impeachments" - but until then we are given what we came for - a bravura version of a comic type we can relish and ridicule. It is hard after this to arrest us with that exit - and it drew mock "aahs" rather than an uncomfortable pause.

But the responsibility is far from Maureen Lipman's alone, for until this moment the production has ambled about Russell Craig's uninformative set without an interpretive care in the world. There are spells when other characters show they are really as loopy as Mrs M, such as Jonathan Weir in Faulkland's frenzy at the supposed lasciviousness of his Julia's dancing and John Thomson's early scenes as fat Bob Acres. But most, particularly Annabel Mullion's Lydia Languish, whose sensibility should be secure from the least iota of sense, are too straight, show too much of the character's own best account of themselves and too little of the satire directed at them. What the show as a whole needs is more of the skewing that the composer Chris Monks visits upon Purcell in his incidental music. This displays a spark of freshness and originality that is mostly missing elsewhere.

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