The Rivals for the Theatre Club

The Rivals, Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury

In March, 15 members of the Upton Theatre Group visited the Watermill Theatre near Newbury to be entertained by a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals.

This was Sheridan’s first play, written in 1774 when he was just 23 and, being recently married, in need of a little ready cash. After an inauspicious first night and some hasty rewriting it became a great success and set Sheridan on a course to be not only one of the best-known playwrights of his generation but also a theatre-owner and MP.

The play is set in Bath in the 1770s, when that city was a hot-house of fashion, society and scandal. Driven from Dublin by debt, Sheridan’s family had settled in Bath in 1770 and as a young man-about-town, Sheridan would have had first-hand knowledge of the foibles of contemporary society. A comedy of manners, it’s a throw-back to the Restoration comedies of a century before. Beth Flintoff’s skilful adaption included a new prologue to transport us in rhyme back to 18th century Bath and back to 21st century Berkshire at the conclusion.

To set the scene……Jack Absolute, a dashing army captain, is in love with Lucy Languish, but adopts the disguise of the impecunious Ensign Beverley, pandering to Lucy’s fanciful notions of a lifetime of romantic penury. His father Sir Anthony, in the meantime, is doing his level best to arrange a suitable marriage for Jack and as luck would have it has chanced upon Lucy as a suitable candidate via her guardian, the moralistic Mrs Malaprop. Jack forcefully spurns his father’s suggestion, blissfully unaware that his beloved and his father’s proposed bride are one and the same….

Thus we embark on a romp of comic misunderstanding and mayhem, incorporating secret notes, unbridled passions and even a duel, or at least a coward’s attempt at one, but readers will be relieved (though probably not surprised) to hear that it all ends happily ever after.

This was my first visit to the Watermill which, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, is an absolute delight. The theatre has been built within the old mill building and is an intimate space seating 200 in a small stalls area and a gallery. The stage apron spreads generously into the auditorium and literally to the very feet of the Upton contingent, for whom Malcolm had secured seats in the front row. Hearing aids and glasses were quite superfluous! From such a vantage point we were able to observe the cast in close-up; woe betide anyone who might have briefly dozed after the splendid meal we enjoyed in the Watermill’s restaurant before the play began.

In a strong cast, Ncuti Gatwa was an ardent, impassioned Jack Absolute while Julia St John hammed up the gift of a role as the Mrs Malaprop – she was absolutely encouragable, or should I say incolourable? Daniel Abelson was memorable in the role of the hapless Bob Acres, up from the country and outwitted by his urbane companions, while who from Upton could have failed to observe the startling similarity between Jack’s chum Faulkland (James Mack) and the Rev. Jason St John Nicolle?

All returned to Upton thoroughly amused and exceptionally well fed – a splendid night out!

Paul Batho