4/5 Stars

The Rivals at Arcola Theatre – 5 Stars

Reading is the root problem of this play, or, at least, a lack of careful reading by the wonderfully silly Lydia Languish.

Unfortunately for Lydia, she has taken her C18th romance novels to be a truthful representation of love. As a result she will only marry a man who is not aristocratic, has no fortune and will elope with her (meaning that she forfeits her own £30,000 fortune). For her poverty is the mark of true love, but fortunately there is a noble man who is willing to play at poverty in order to win her heart.

The plot of The Rivals has all the fast-paced confusion of any restoration comedy, and yet it is simple enough to follow: everyone is looking for love but some are luckier than others in its pursuit. And although the running time is longer than we C21st century audiences are used to, there is no chance of being left behind because the best thing about the theatre of this period is that it is unashamedly played to the audience. Director Selina Cadell doesn’t miss an opportunity where the cast can turn their performance out to the audience; engaging us through bows, raised eyebrows, flirtatious come-ons, and generally using the front row as a temporary costume store.

Lydia, the languishing heroine, is played by Jenny Rainsford who really cranks up the farcical nature of her character; embellishing her performance with melodramatic twirls and flourishes that draw lots of laughs from the audience. Each cast member has staked their claim to some sort of absurdity; Adam Jackson Smith seems to be channelling a certain Blackadder quality to fabulous effect, and Justin Edwards plays the cun’ry farmer with as much clumping awkwardness as you’d like.

One can’t ignore the two stars on the stage, namely Gemma Jones and Nicholas Le Prevost, though. Jones takes on the infamous Mrs Malaprop and perfectly balances the vain preening and self-satisfaction of her character whilst exaggerating her learned ignorance. The most entertaining performance comes from Le Prevost, however, whose mix of hot-headedness and old-man-naughtiness is a delight to watch.

Charlotte Pegram

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