That Red Handed Theatre Company are tackling Sheridan’s classic 18th century comedy at the Park, a theatre so new that it still smells new, seems fitting given their chosen aesthetic of mixing the historical with the contemporary. Jessica Swale’s previous revivals from the era, of The Busy Body, The Belle’s Stratagem and Sheridan’s own The Rivals, have been hailed for their charm, and her School for Scandal follows the same pattern of mixing modern theatrical innovation with a classic text, though the approach is less successful here.
Opening with an original song by Laura Forrest-Hay, featuring the full company as a chorus of gossips, Swale establishes the essential thrust of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play in minutes. Essentially, that some people like gossip, which looks harmless as hobbies go – but Lady Sneerwell (Belinda Lang) is using the spread of rumours to alienate a love rival, Maria (Jessica Clark).
Maria and Sneerwell both love rebellious young tearaway Charles Surface (Harry Kerr), but Sneerwell knows she can put Maria off by spreading rumours of an affair between Charles and Lady Teazle (Kirsty Besterman). Meanwhile, Lady Teazle, who married an older man for his money, is actually more interested in Charles’s apparently noble brother Joseph (Tom Berish) – so obsessed with, as his surname suggests, the Surface of things, that his moral core is actually fairly nonexistent. He will do anything at all as long as people still believe him to be good.
It’s a plot that is at once both convoluted and extremely simple, though naturally Sheridan assists us in the usual 18th century way by giving everyone a name that makes it pretty easy to tell from the second they arrive on stage whether they’re a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’. The production is at times very funny indeed – but strangely Swale seems to lack faith in the text itself.
The entire production is peppered with gimmicky bits, like the original modern songs, where cast members play a variety of instruments, frequent instances of audience interaction and the constant breaking of the fourth wall. Putting all these nods and winks in, as well as sight gags about Fifty Shades of Grey, seems to imply either that Swale doesn’t think the play alone is funny enough, or that her audience won’t be quite up to it.
There are some strong performances here, especially from Buffy Davis, who is consistently very funny as Mrs Candor, while Besterman manages to bring both heart and humour to the role of Lady Teazle, and is nicely complemented by Daniel Gosling as her put-upon husband. Still, Swale’s decision to keep one foot in the modern world – though it has clearly worked well in the past – isn’t as effective as it might be, nor is the half-done audience interaction, which is never really pushed far enough to feel fully a part of the production. There’s an inventiveness on display, which taken alone, would be fun – but there’s also a showiness to the staging which seems to suggest a lack of trust in the play.