“Gad! Sir, I like your spirit; and at night we single lads will drink a health to the young couples, and a husband to Mrs. Malaprop”
‘The Rivals‘, a restaging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s ‘Comedy of Manners’ by Durham University Classical Theatre, was a wonderful watch, with the right sprinkle of humour and sentiment culminating into a masterful piece. Shouldering the Herculean task of enacting Restoration Comedy is no easy feat, and ‘The Rivals’ simply delivers.
Comedy is definitely tough to pull off but with stellar acting and good writing, the talented cast leaves the audience in splits effortlessly. Thomas Corcoran and Florence Booth (who play Captain Jack Absolute and Miss. Lydia Languish respectively) have fantastic chemistry as the lead pair. Corcoran has good comic timing and one improvisation scene where a prop gets destroyed was carried off with such flair. He is charming, strong with his words, and carries the bravado of a government servant without any doubt. Corcoran also plays a pseudo narrator, breaking the 4th wall from time to time, using humour in exposition, which all felt natural. Booth plays her role to perfection, as the wealthy heiress fantasising about the ‘ideal love story’ from romantic novels. She gracefully walks around, fanning herself dramatically whenever emotional, and simply enjoys the character. Samuel Bentley plays Mr Fag, Captain Jack Absolute’s servant who simply cannot stand everyone mispronouncing his name, a running gag that does get slightly tedious, but is fun nevertheless. His interactions with Thomas and David (played by George Gibbs) where they attempt to grasp all the ongoing madness were well-performed.
Alannah O’Hare as Mrs. Malaprop is also aptly cast for the role. Her scenes with Booth leave the audience in peals of laughter, especially when they both begin to fan each other in distress. Although a bit of rambling does reduce the impact of a few jokes, it feels natural and in line with her character. Emilia Lewis also plays her part well as the maid, and her frantic running around is enjoyable to watch. Mr. Acres (played by T Stedman-Jones) is also a fun character to watch. Jones’ innocent childishness and the character’s poor decisions are well-acted and the casting is on point.
However, the scene-stealers of the play were definitely James Porter and George Zu Weid as Mr. Faukland and Sir Anthony Absolute respectively. Porter is a natural and has such a flair for comedy, making every scene his own. His mannerisms, voice modulation, and frequent meltdowns with Miss. Julia Melville (played well by Lucinda Turner) were a delight to watch and nothing felt forced. His physical comedy aids the humourous dialogues perfectly and never gets tiresome. Similar praise goes to Zu Weid, playing an old wealthy baronet who still has the energy to have eccentric spats with almost every single cast member! Zu Weid simply embodies the role and has a lot of fun with it as well. His frequent head-bobbing to display anger, whilst using his walking stick as a prop, aids his whimsical comic timing, resulting in absolute comedy gold. It’s also worth noting that despite being handed challenging dialogues, both Porter and Zu Weid have great clarity of speech and every gag landed flawlessly. Bethan Avery plays Sir Lucius O’Trigger, another suitor for Lydia fighting for her hand. Avery plays the role aptly, and although some emotions of surprise could have been more developed, the overall characterisation of the role was carried out well.
The stage and sound design definitely deserves credit; splitting the stage into three levels was an ingenious idea to make the best use of space and for seamless transitioning between scenes, especially during the maniacal final act. The lighting, staging, and costumes were phenomenal as well – It was beautiful to see the Assembly Rooms stage filled with 18th century props and furniture, and all the cast members draped in flashy colours from the era. Director Niamh Kellier, assistant director Ollie Cochran, production manager Aaron Lo, and assistant production manager Himasali Jayaratne deserve all the praise for bringing this drama to light. Managing so many characters would have also been a tough task, and while the plot and few lines do get convoluted in the process, it doesn’t take away from the overall experience.
‘The Rivals’ is a good example of how a Comedy of Manner should be – a wild ride filled with enough twists, turns, and humour to keep the audience engaged.
Picture part of Durham University Classical Theatre’s promotional materials, provided by @ductheatre on Instagram.