A few years ago Will Self came to Bristol’s Arnolfini to give a reading from Umbrella. At the event he mentioned staying with friends in Bath that evening. The two cities are so close together, he went on to say, that you can imagine a long carpeted walkway connecting the two – albeit with the Bath end being perfectly vacuumed and the Bristol end kind of tattered and a little bit muddy. The image is apt; Bath is the deluxe shag pile cream carpet to Bristol’s battered vintage rag rug. The two are called ‘sister cities’, but Bristol is like Pippa Middleton’s aisle-bound arse: sexier and stealing the attention.
Dominic Hill’s production of The Rivals by Sheridan takes a distinctly Bathonian play and gives it a deliberate dusting of Bristol dirt. Instead of accurately re-creating the stuffy world of crinolines and cramped interiors, Tom Roger’s set design is deconstructed and transparent in its theatricality. A series of painted cloths descend to provide the backdrops for different rooms, but occasionally hang halfway, their wires clearly visible to the audience. Supersized wooden picture frames are echoed in the chair backs and their missing images appear elsewhere in the form of a Gainsborough-inspired hunting scene backdrop.
Ability to enjoy this production probably depends on your existing attitude to 18th century comedies. Those who believe there is nothing more timeless and exquisite than these drawing room farces and enjoy a trip around No. 1 Royal Crescent will likely be affronted. The inherent irreverence of this type of play is here entirely embraced, but not in a way that translates into perfect historical recreation. Personally, I find the majority of Restoration comedies and their immediate followers exceptionally hard to get along with. My appreciation starts and ends somewhere in the costume and wig department. However, I left Hill’s Wildean production feeling like I’d finally ‘got it’. It was a similar feeling to seeing a really good modern update of Shakespeare for the first time and suddenly understanding the characters, their lines and the jokes.
Fashion is a correctly large part of this production. Hair is bouffantted to Marge Simpson heights, Mrs Malaprop (Julie Legrand) arrives wearing an oversized shower cap of a hat and even the servant, Lucy (Lily Donovan), is bedecked in bows like a pretty Christmas tree. But again, the artifice of all this is not hidden. Rails of clothing dot the stage and are wheeled around between scenes. Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch) only puts on his red military jacket when deciding its time to be official and impress daddy rather than his sweetheart.
Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lydia Languish also starts out with hooks and eyes untwined. Her performance removes the obstinate aristocrat from her pickle juice and turns her into a spectacularly gobby Made in Chelsea brat. Her vowels morph ‘O’s into ‘AAhs’ and she spends a good chunk of the performance with her mouth slightly open, like the way young boys do. She’s fabulous to the extent that scenes without Lydia in them start to feel just that: Lydia-less. Each time the painted cloth denoting her house falls, I have to supress the urge to squeal, “OMG, LYDIA, I LOVE YOU!”
If the deconstructed set and visible wings are not enough to make clear that this show is not taking itself too seriously, then there are also a good sprinkling of anachronisms. Portrait miniatures in lockets are partnered with polaroid pictures along with elements that feel like they should be historically wrong, but apparently (according to my research this morning) are not, such as the eating of a banana in 18th century England. The bucolic hillsides of Bath are littered with ridiculous plastic sheep that later double as post-dual seats.
It seems as though the cast and crew have arrived at the Bristol terminal of the carpeted catwalk with wigs askew, britches wonky and a bit flushed from too much port. And, like drinking cider in view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, it totally works.
The Rivals is on until 1st October at the Bristol Old Vic before touring. Click here for more details.