Producer Duncan Weldon didn't get where he is today by ignoring the tastes of his audiences, and the latest opening in his season as Theatre Director at Chichester provides exactly the pleasant, pretty, undemanding entertainment required for a summer's evening on the South Downs.
Richard Cottrell's production and Tim Goodchild's design give periodic nudges to the audience of an age at least as hungry for scandalous gossip as the fashionable London of 1777. The body of the set is decorated with phrases of scandal from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's own period, whilst the flies are festooned with modern-day front pages bearing headlines about the likes of Messrs. Mellor, Yeo and Aitken. Abigail McKern strolls onto the stage in mufti to deliver a tabloidese rewrite of David Garrick's prologue to the play before re-appearing a few scenes later as a girlish Lady Teazle not quite ready to play with the big-league rumour-mongers.
The production as a whole is rather too sedate for the romp it aspires to be. Ian Carmichael's Sir Peter Teazle, doting too much upon his wife to deny her a thing even after discovering her on the brink of flagrante, is an amiable old buffer more prone to distraction than outright rage; Honor Blackman as chief scandal-peddler Lady Sneerwell is generally too busy clocking the audience to be properly malicious.
The evening's strengths include Dinsdale Landen as Sir Oliver Surface, disguising himself to test the mettle of his two nephews – Landen is a grandmaster of the lost art of the comic aside, and his switchback turns from polite laughter to spluttering incredulity and back in a second are a miniature joy. Dora Bryan, too, is on fine form as the hypocritical tattler Mrs Candour, dressed in a gown so bright as to be visible from deep space and genteelly mangling her vowels in a manner which makes Hyacinth Bucket sound like Wendy Richard.
By and large, though, the proceedings lack edge. Tim Wallers as Charles Surface, a young debauchee with a heart of gold, is marked out from the first as a decent soul whatever his elders might think. Richard Garnett as his two-faced brother Joseph gives a performance which, if anything, is too consistently smooth to evoke the character's true villainy as his deceptions are gradually unveiled; the humour in this outing is of Garnett's devising rather than Sheridan's, as he prefaces each polished platitude with a little cough or degenerates momentarily into a Basil Fawlty-ism such as pounding his head on a desk or beckoning his manservant over for a cuff round the ear.
The show has "crowd-pleasing West End transfer" written all over it, and would certainly succeed on those terms with a London audience seemingly growing a mite tired of musicals. To be sure, it is diverting and chucklesome, but Sheridan's play offers more, and his acerbity is sold not a little short.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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