Last weekend I went to see The Rivals, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (I think it has now closed, though). Sheridan’s play, first performed in 1775, is one of the delights I had completely forgotten since my undergraduate days, but it is the most remarkable play: it’s a lot of fuss about nothing, really, but such an elegant fuss, touching on serious issues but immediately skimming over them, as if to remind the audience not to take fashionable life in Bath too seriously. The language is rich and entertaining, and one can practically hear the audience’s brains whirring as Mrs Malaprop misuses another word and the audience attempts to recall the correct one. My favourite, like most people’s, is the “very pineapple of politeness”.
Penelope Keith was marvellous as Mrs Malaprop – her timing is perfect and the supercilious and arrogant manner in which she delivers her malapropisms is so innocent and confident that it becomes all the funnier. A woman of fashion, keen to be seen to be in the know, I suppose there is something of Margot Leadbetter in Mrs Malaprop… And Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute – scheming and playing for laughs, shouting at his son and making eyes at Mrs Malaprop – was equally well-timed and convincing. In fact, the complicated plot, the intricacies of language and the faithful representation of eighteenth-century comedy show the play to be a timely reminder of what a delight such period pieces can be.