Theatre review: The Rivals at Rosemary Branch Theatre

Laughs come thick and fast as Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s subtle play is given sublime makeover

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s notoriously difficult ‘comedy of manners’ receives a simple but sublime makeover in this stripped-down production from Creative Cow.

Founded in a cowshed under the watchful eye of a White Park herd, it is hardly surprising that this adaptable company thrives in intimate surroundings.

Fortunately, the Rosemary Branch Theatre provides the perfect venue for a performance that relies heavily on conspiratorial winks and gestures to the audience.

The minimalist setting, six chairs, two fairy-lit scaffolds and a chequered floor, may be at odds with this lavish period piece set in the fashionable city of Bath, but it ensures our attention never strays from the mesmerising cast.

There are some strong performances here, from Jonathan Parish’s bumbling David to Katherine Senior’s pretentious ‘she-dragon’ Mrs Malaprop.

However, it is Jack Hulland’s standout act as Sir Anthony Absolute who steals the show; a preposterous 18th Century caricature who spits, sweats and swears before stomping up the isle in a seat-shaking furore.

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At times there is a danger that such tongue-twisting dialogue might escape those unaccustomed with Sheridan’s work.

Yet even to an untrained ear, such precise comic-timing and wit, combined with the timeless motif of upper-class hypocrisy ensure that the laughs come thick and fast.

For a play of such subtlety, it is also refreshing to see director Amanda Knott has not forsaken the action; highlighted in the genuinely impressive, and impossibly confined fencing scenes between Robinson and Parish.

In the fast-paced, cynical world of the 21st Century, many believe that the bawdy, cavalier comedies of the past have had their day. Zounds! It is a testament to Creative Cow that in a single evening, such aspersions can be turned on their head.

* The Rivals is at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Shepperton Road, N1, until Sunday. Call 020 7704 6665.