Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 13 September, 2010

A wash and a lick of paint (£3.65 million worth thereof) have done the Theatre Royal in Bath no end of good, and to judge by the comprehensive traffic works much of the rest of the city is following suit. It was a nice idea to re-open the building with Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, set in Bath in 1775, at more or less the same time the theatre (though not the present premises) opened. "Nice", though, is a weasel word, and I'm afraid Peter Hall's production rather merits such weaselling. It is an agreeable, genteel, sometimes rather too leisurely entertainment much in tune with that aspect of Bath's historical character, but hardly amounts to restarting with a bang.
To many theatregoers of a certain age, the primary draw will be the reunion of Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, who sparred of old as the leads of 1979-81 TV sitcom To The Manor Born. Bowles, who here plays the irascible old Sir Anthony Absolute, is on better form line-wise than when I last saw him, but still some way from perfect, and his laid-back performance is at odds with Sir Anthony's volatility. Keith's blithe patrician self-assurance fits perfectly with the role of Mrs Malaprop as she glides casually over a plethora of linguistic howlers. In fact, her confidence infects the audience to the extent that we quite often laugh mistakenly at what are not malapropisms at all but simply florid turns of phrase.
Sheridan shoe-horned in so many romantic schemes and counter-schemes that fully the first hour of the play is composed of set-up; only thereafter can we begin to relish portrayals such as Tony Gardner's jealously ineffectual Faulkland or Gerard Murphy's suave bruiser of a Sir Lucius O'Trigger. Keiron Self as the bumpkin Bob Acres is so disarming that, when he dresses as a beau, we feel at ease to patronisingly "Ooh!" his peruke, and he to modestly disavow our admiration with an aw-shucks flap of his hands. However, there is little to be said of Tam Williams and (in her professional début) Robyn Addison as the principal lovers. They are, like the production itself, amiable company for two and a half hours, but their passion for each other finds little echo in ours for them.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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