The Rivals, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Michael Coveney
Thursday 25 November 2010 01:00

One should study geometry, says Mrs Malaprop, in order to know about the contagious countries. If Sheridan's The Rivals is a challenge to the national curriculum, it is also a satire on having one in the first place.

Sir Anthony Absolute's doubts about Lydia Languish's suitability for his son are based on her reading habits. Particularly dangerous in the circulating libraries are the books in marble covers, with their high-flown fictional analyses of sentiment and romance. The great joy of this brilliantly written play is similar: the four lovers are caught in a Shakespearean quadrille of artifice finally exploded in true feeling. And it's all set in an 18th-century Bath teeming with intrigue along the Parades and the Royal Crescent.

Peter Hall's revival was launched earlier this year in the city itself, but doesn't carry the atmosphere of the place in the way that a great production like Peter Wood's at the National did in 1983. Simon Higlett's design is a bricked-up allusion to the Circus, flat and inflexible, and Mick Sands's music is irritatingly genteel.

Of course, under Hall's direction, the prose is scrupulously well spoken, but there's not much juice in Penelope Keith's strangled Malapropisms, and no one indeed seems capable of perforating her mystery. She is blithely indifferent to her own exigencies, while Peter Bowles's Anthony Absolute cuts a forbidding figure, not least when adumbrating Lydia's charms to his own son.

This pair is nicely done by Robyn Addison and Tam Williams; but the second pair of Julia and Faulkland yields richer pickings, and Annabel Scholey and Tony Gardner take full advantage. Refusing to guy the Oirish preposterousness of Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Gerard Murphy has an uphill struggle, valiantly undertaken. And Keiron Self's energetic Bob Acres nearly makes you care that he loathes country dancing.

To 26 February (0845 481 1870)

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