With the castle keep as an impressive backdrop, the company played with huge gusto on their tiny but versatile stage. Director James Reynard, who was also a dashing young Jack Absolute, gave his cast every opportunity for comic business and audience contact. It was a broad brush production, but that is exactly what is needed in an open-air show. All the cast, from Lydia Languish (Natasha Hall), who did just that, to Mrs Malaprop (Jayne Lloyd), who came on like a cross between Les Dawson and Anne Widdecombe, were excellent, complete professionals. They needed every ounce of their professional skill just to survive - and this is what made the evening so memorable. For the whole of the first half, the actors had a band of very real ‘Rivals’ to contend with. Not knowing that a play was being presented across the way, the Cathedral authorities had arranged an evening of bell-ringing. And how the actors battled! Every line had to be delivered out front at full volume - no room for subtlety here -and the ad libs flew thick and fast, some of them quite brilliant. At one point the actor playing the fiery Lucius O’Trigger appealed to the audience: "Has anyone got a drop of real old Irish whiskey on them? - I’ve developed a sudden allergy to Bells!" During the interval the magnificent but intrusive bells fell mercifully silent, and for the second half the players were able to give us their normal performance. At the end, the audience showed by their applause that they had thoroughly appreciated the efforts of this exciting and talented young company in what was their first visit to Medway. Let us hope that it will be the first of many.
18th Century knock-about goes down a storm at the castle
IT WOULD be a sour critic who couldn’t enjoy this opening event of the Chepstow Festival — we even had a mildish, shower-free evening to enjoy a picnic and a piece of unpretentious 18th-century comedy. All too often these alfresco summer productions try to convince us that if we sit in the ruins of an ancient monument and endure the British climate for several hours in the company of a famous, usually long-dead, playwright, then we are truly partaking of our cultural heritage. It may work sometimes —Ludlow, for example — but when you can’t generally expect topnotch acting, accomplished direction or exciting design then theatre of a more knock-about nature is what we want. The touring company Rain or Shine have made the inspired decision to give Shakespeare a miss and offer instead Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a writer whose popular comedies may offer insights into his own life but which essentially offer a sharp parody of the nouveau-riche pretensions of an England we know better through Jane Austen’s costume dramas. To call The Rivals a satire would be giving it just the airs Sheridan derided. It’s more of a burlesque, and we are reminded that as well as being almost the same age as Austen (Jane was born the year The Rivals was disastrously premiered) it was also the age of pantomime. James Reynard’s pacey production with its crude sexual innuendoes, sight gags and stereotyped caricatures, with a Mrs Malaprop that looks just like a panto dame, captures that anti-intellectualism well. A couple of enjoyable leads (Reynard himself and the wonderfully flouncing Natasha Hall) head up a cast including Cardiff’s David Middleton.
Open-air touring company Rain or Shine has so far encountered a great deal more of the former than the latter on this summer’s ambitious 42-venue jaunt around some of the UK’s more stately homes. With so many alfresco offerings of Shakespeare this year, producer Jayne Lloyd has wisely plumped for Restoration comedy, although, ironically the company encountered its worst downpour yet when visiting the delightful Lady Farm just outside Bath, the setting for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic. Two particular torrents forced temporary suspension of the action, but the ten soaked players bravely soldiered on, exchanging congratulatory applause at the end with their stoic audience. Director James Reynard has rightly decided on the broadest of comedy brushes, introducing some hilarious extraneous business to several key scenes, while just managing to stay the right side of ‘Carry on Sheridan’. His cast adapts easily to this approach, even if some of Sheridan’s more gentle satire is lost in the process. Jayne Lloyd grabs every opportunity to provide a Mrs Malaprop whom it is impossible to ‘illiterate from your memory’, and there is splendidly over the top comic support from David Middleton (Bob Acres), Roger Burfield (Sir ‘Lucius O’Trigger), Josie Lamb (Lucy) and Hugh Young (Sir Anthony Absolute). The lovers are strictly figures of fun too, in the hands of Natasha Hall (Lydia Languish), Robin Miller (Julia Melville), James Reynard (Captain Jack Absolute ) and Tom Mackenzie (Faulkland) — but then you need to be in the face of an English summer.
WINNERS OF BEST DRAMA AWARD
On a perfect summer’s evening, the westering sun paints in gold the roofs of the town below. Lazy buzz in her last beams and the play begins as a bucolic audience settles amongst their picnic debris. Wise servants (Pippa Meekings as the rest with Josie Lamb as Lucy powerfully in charge) lead the foolish "betters" through the plot and the lazy motes communicate with their siblings. Mrs Malaprop (Jane Lloyd) larger than life and twice as irrational alarms the other characters and the audience alike with her linguistic gymnastics. The spectators laugh unreservedly as they pass round multivarious brands of insect repellent. We meet the romantic Lydia Languish (Natasha Hall) and her more sensible cousin Julia Melville (Robin Miller), honest Jack Absolute (James Reynard), and his father Sir Anthony (Hugh Young) - a hard choice among such an accomplished cast, but I think the outstanding characterisation of the performance. As the night encroaches, the midge battalions gather and the crowd defend themselves without for a moment losing involvement in the play. Clumsy, foolish Bob Acres (David Middleton) arrives in Bath from the country, the paranoid Faulkland (Tom Mackenzie) wreaks havoc with his Julia’s affections and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Roger Burfield) entices everybody into duels and ad-libs with the audience. "Look, they’re al waving to me", he quips as we waft programmes, picnic plates and hats ineffectually against the winged hordes that thicken the air. But we never lose involvement and laugh uproariously as the plot winds intricately to its happy resolution The genius of Sheridan is that we stay in sympathy with all the characters he lampoons, laugh at them and love them, will them on their way to happiness. This is one of the greatest comedies in the English language and this must be one of the best companies to perform it. They are polished, professional, powerful and naturally funny. Long may they continue to grace the Fringe and long may they return to this lovely venue. The Rivals can be seen at Eyam Hall on Friday and Saturday (see the Fringe programme for details). Eyam is lovely, the play is the best, the company consummate. Take an excursion to see them if you can. The midges will be there but they can’t win - no way!!!
The portents were not good. A leading member of the cast had broken his ankle the day before and was having to play his part from a wheelchair, thunder was rolling ominously in overcast skies — and someone had forgotten to order the portable toilets! But the Longlevens-based Rain or Shine Theatre Company triumphed over all such adversity with deceptive ease on Friday evening in their faultless, rollicking production of Sheridan’s The Rivals which has won them the Best Drama Award at the Buxton Festival Fringe.
Outstanding Wheelchair-bound David Middleton, as Bob Acres — hauled on and off stage by cast members using a special ramp — gave a bizarre twist to stage situations (especially the duel), and only added to the agile wit and fun of this 18th century comedy satirising the pretensions of the nouveau riche visiting Bath to partake of the spa waters. Outstanding were Gloucester’s Jayne Lloyd, founder of the company, as the archetypal Mrs Malaprop, and Stroud born Hugh Young as the blustering Sir Anthony Absolute. The many asides and soliloquies in the play, first performed in 1775, guaranteed much hilarity and audience participation — even to the extent of director James Reynard (Capt Jack Absolute) and Tom Mackenzie (Faulkland) filching picnic items from the front row for use as props! These Rivals are surely unrivalled, and prove that the play Sheridan dashed off in a couple of weeks at the age of 23 when he was short of cash has stood the test of time.