This wartime spoof on Sheridan’s The Rivals, by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris and playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre, seems to have mostly impressed the critics. It certainly impressed the audience on the preview performance I attended.
However I was disappointed. I love farce, I spent a good deal of my youth acting in plays by the likes of Ben Travers and I learned – mostly from the farce master, the (late) actor Ben Whitrow – that it must be played at speed, with deadly seriousness, and above all with a light touch.
It’s this last quality that is missing from the production, in my view. Here and there are the odd very funny lines, some but not all of which are well-delivered. Posh Lydia’s inept attempts at rhyming slang did not always hit the mark. And the Malapropisms are laboured and delivered with a sledge-hammer. On the other hand the scene between the maid Lucy, when she picks up on the fact that would-be poet Bikram, aka Tony, is nicking lines from Shakespeare and Keats, is as funny as it is unlikely.
But all in all there were only two performances I could properly believe in. Helena Melville, as Lydia’s friend Julia, plays her with a true sincerity that is straight out of the 1940s. And the star of the show, in my humble opinion, is Tim Steed, who unlike most of the rest of the cast brings a reality that is both hilarious and occasionally poignant to his character Brian Coventry, manager of the base, thanks to his underplaying and lightness of touch. A true successor to the late and great Ben Whitrow.