The School For Scandal – April 2015

Experience: 10/10

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with additions by Dominic Power

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Wednesday 15th April 2015

Brilliant from beginning to end. Probably the best production of this play we’re likely to see. And we’ve only booked for one viewing – drat! And this was an early performance, so it’s bound to get even better despite such a short run – double drat!

But why am I complaining? This was such a great evening in the theatre that I want to bask in the glow of the tremendous performances and excellent editing/updating. Don’t worry, they didn’t set the play in the modern day or use modern dress, just made a few tweaks here and there (i.e. prologue and epilogue) to underscore the fact that the play is as much about today’s society as it was about the Georgian period. It’s a shame the house wasn’t packed out, but at least there was a reasonable attendance and we were a noisy bunch in all the right ways.

The set, while back to SATTF’s more usual minimalist style, was in keeping with the period along with the costumes and wigs. At the start there was a small table and an oval-backed chair between the two near pillars, with all the accoutrements which Lady Sneerwell would need for her toilette: brush, rouge, pince-nez, ribbon, etc. In the central area, four more chairs faced each other diagonally from the corners and a candelabra hung above the centre of the stage. By the back right pillar stood a narrow angular piano painted in white with gold trim. There was music open on the top – didn’t see any names when I checked it out – along with a tray of coffee cups, some paper and a quill. Each of the pillars was painted white below and gold above, with a pair of candle holders about head height on the inward-facing side.

A servant came through about five minutes before the start and poured one cup of coffee which was on the small table, then left the pot on the tray beside the cups and exited. I’d seen in the program that there was a revised prologue – I’m writing without the benefit of a play text beside me, never mind the text of this actual production – and shortly after the start time Byron Mondahl came on wearing the pink outfit of his character, Sir Benjamin Backbite, but minus the wig, white makeup and beauty spot. In the course of introducing the play, he referred to “new-fangled toys”, at which point he took out a mobile phone and waved it; this was very funny, and very appropriate. The phone then rang, and he apologised, but he had to take the call. It was from a friend of his, and after explaining to his friend that he was just doing the prologue for some boring play which he (the friend) wouldn’t have heard of, learned that there was some juicy new gossip about a chap who had been caught having an affair with a young woman, and who had been snapped in the street with his trousers down. His friend sent him the picture which he instantly retweeted, only to discover it was a picture of himself! Horrified, he pressed delete, but it was already out there. He decided the best way to forestall the inevitable tide of gossip and criticism was to become best mates with everyone, and so he picked some people in the audience to flatter about their wonderful intelligence, wit, looks, style choices, etc. He rounded this off by taking a selfie with the audience in the background, and since the lights went down just as he took the picture we could see the flash going off. End of prologue, and he left the stage to much laughter and applause. All of this was done in the style of Sheridan, and had us laughing long and hard within the first minute: an excellent addition to the piece.

The play proper began with Lady Sneerwell (Julia Hills) getting a progress report from her smarmy henchman, Snake (Paul Currier). One of the delights of seeing both of this company’s productions in a season is the cross-casting, with actors getting to play widely divergent characters in each play. So here we had the yoga-practising Friar from Romeo and Juliet playing the oily pedlar of inexactitudes; perhaps that’s not such a huge leap after all. Their dialogue was crisp and clear, so we soon had a very good idea of the main characters, their current relationships and how the plot was likely to develop. We also had a very good idea of Lady Sneerwell’s character, if one can call it that; her desire to ruin the reputations of others may have been born out of her own suffering at the hands of scandal-mongers, but there was no need to go so far nor to enjoy herself nearly so much. That she would get her comeuppance was a nailed on certainty.

Various guests arrived at short intervals, so that we could get to know the people and see the École Scandaleuse at work. Sir Backbite and his uncle, Crabtree (Benjamin Whitrow), were very enjoyable, as they kept interrupting each other in their attempt to be the one to relay a tasty piece of gossip, even elbowing each other out of the way in their eagerness to be the news-giver. Lady Sneerwell made several pointed contributions herself, but the prize absolutely has to go to Mrs Candour (Fiona Sheehan), both in terms of the play and the performance. Early on, eager to glean some actual information (which she would no doubt embellish beyond recognition) about Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, Mrs Candour voiced her concern to Maria (Hannah Lee), Sir Peter’s ward, that things were rumoured not to be going so well between her guardian and his new wife? The lines were delivered in snippets, with a rising inflection and hopeful, questioning expression on her face each time, so that we could see this was a fishing expedition – brilliant. As she was doing this, she was standing near the piano and Lady Sneerwell’s servant was attempting to pour coffee into the cup which she was holding; each time she moved the cup away at the crucial moment and he was unable to carry out this simple task. When she did finally sit down and tried to take a drink, she realised her cup was empty and went back to the piano so that he could, at long last, fill it for her. We found all this terrifically funny.

And then there was the wonderful way she would reassure everyone that she was totally against spreading rumour and gossip – but what could you do to stop other people from passing on every little snippet they heard? – before launching into yet another story at such a rapid speed that we didn’t always catch every word. Didn’t matter – we could tell the sort of people she was talking about and the kind of things she, and the others, were laughing at. All except Maria, of course, who eventually took her leave.

For the next scene in Sir Peter and Lady Teazle’s residence, the table was removed and the chairs rearranged, with a long padded bench being added to the mix. Sir Peter (Chris Bianchi) obligingly informed us of his marital problems in full detail (discreetly omitting any reference to the bedroom aspects) and before long we met his good lady wife (Daisy Whalley), who confirmed his two biggest complaints – she spent his money extravagantly on irrelevant fripperies, and constantly contradicted him! Even though he was always right! Seeing the youthful Juliet transformed into the pampered city wife of an elderly knight was good fun, and we had a moment of something akin to déjà vu when Sir Peter came on. Chris Bianchi played the Friar in the Romeo and Juliet which we saw recently at the Rose. This meant we had two ‘Friars’ in the cast – did they compare notes when they met at rehearsals for this, we wondered?

Lady Sneerwell’s evening of bitchery was well-attended, with even Sir Peter putting in a brief appearance. The candles were lit and the furniture was re-arranged slightly to accommodate the guests, and a small table with two chairs was set in the entrance area for Maria and Joseph (Paapa Essiedu) to have their game together. Maria was keen on Joseph’s younger brother, Charles (Jack Wharrier), while Joseph was keen to get her money for himself through marriage. Charles had pretty much run through his inheritance and was considered a ne’er-do-well, whereas Joseph had maintained an appearance of probity – they called him “a man of sentiment” – which gave him the reputation of a good man. Even Sir Peter (who never made a mistake) was taken in.

Lady Teazle joined in the character assassination with zest and enthusiasm, and although she may have been correct to say that she did it without malice, there was plenty of that quality to go round from the other participants. Even Lady Sneerwell found some of the comments hard to take: from our position we could clearly see her unhappiness when nasty comments were being made about older ladies, especially those who pretended to be younger than they were.

Lady Sneerwell, who was working in co-operation with Joseph to ensure that Charles was free to marry her, took the rest of her guests off to play cards, leaving Joseph alone with Maria to work on her feelings for him. Unfortunately, he was also paying court to Lady Teazle – a little affair on the side – and when she came in and saw him kneeling to Maria she was understandably suspicious. Joseph covered his actions with a story that Maria suspected the relationship between them (Joseph and Lady Teazle), which mollified her a little.

To stir things up even more, Joseph and Charles’ uncle, Sir Oliver (Chris Garner), arrived back in London from the East Indies. He was keen to see his nephews again after many years’ absence, and to check that they would be suitable recipients of his wealth when he died. A former servant of their father, called Rowley (Alan Coveney), was keen to warn him not to believe the stories about Charles, as he, Rowley, knew the lad to have a good heart and to be capable of better things. He also knew Joseph to be a manipulative schemer, so clearly some people weren’t fooled by the “man of sentiment”.

Sir Peter’s marriage was a source of much amusement to Sir Oliver – the two men had been great friends as well as confirmed bachelors for many years. On top of all this, Sir Peter and Rowley disagreed about the characters of Joseph and Charles, so a plot was hatched. Sir Oliver would visit the young men in the guise of a distant relation, Mr Stanley, who had fallen on hard times and was in debtors’ prison. Their responses to this gentleman’s requests for assistance would shape Sir Oliver’s view of their qualities. A further option arose: with Charles in urgent need of money to continue enjoying his extravagant lifestyle, Sir Oliver could visit him pretending to be Mr Premium, a broker whom Credit (Craig Fuller), a banker (or loan shark as we would probably call him nowadays) had promised to introduce to the young man. With some very funny lines, Credit explained the process of money lending, and it’s fair to say that this section was hilariously up-to-the minute with, as far as I could tell, not a single change to the dialogue.

So now all we needed was to meet Charles himself, around whom much of this plot had revolved. With sheets over the furniture – they also had lot numbers on them from an earlier visit by the bailiffs – and the candles snuffed out, we had arrived in some ante-room in Charles’ house where the servant, Trip (Joey Hickman), was busy uncorking a crate of bottles. Maria was also there, not to see Charles – she was obeying Sir Peter’s order to avoid him – but to hand over her jewels so that Charles could raise some money and pay off some of his debt. Trip took the jewels willingly, and when Charles came in to find out where the bottles of wine were – Maria slipped away just as he entered – Trip duly handed over the jewels along with a banker’s draft from Lady Sneerwell. Charles told Trip to return both gifts; his point of view was that he could live without money but he couldn’t live without honour. We didn’t get to see much of him at this first visit, but at least he made a reasonably good impression.

Another round of quarrelling between Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, which was good fun, was resolved by Sir Peter writing his wife a banker’s draft for £200. We laughed when he took her hand to kiss it and she dragged him over to the piano to write out the note. This was followed by the aforementioned plotting of Sir Oliver’s disguised visits to his two nephews. The next scene showed us the drunken debauchery: basically a bunch of young men swilling wine like it was water – from the looks of the spillage, it was water – and carousing as if their lives depended on it. Oliver Hoare, who played Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet, was in similar vein tonight as Careless, and there were other revellers in the party. Trip came in to tell Charles that he had visitors – he did a little conducting of the song at first, which was good fun – and when Credit and Mr Premium arrived, they were greeted rather boisterously. Charles, mindful of his need for money, drove his friends into the next room so that he could talk business with the two money lenders, and from his demeanour it was clear that he knew this process well. Charles’ offhand manner towards selling the family plate, the choice collection of books from his father’s library and so on, made Sir Oliver very angry, and his occasional outbursts added to the fun. He was nearly apoplectic when Charles suggested that he buy the family portraits, but went along with the idea (as Mr Premium), and Careless was called in to act as auctioneer. They left the stage, and that was where they took the interval – no surprise to us; with all that water sloshed on the floor, they needed time to dry it off.

The set changed very little for the next scene. The furniture was mostly removed – there was one covered wooden chair near the middle of the stage – and one picture was hung high up between the far pillars, next to the piano. Guess who played the other portraits?

But first, there was darkness. Maria entered and sat on the chair, and once she was spotlit she began to sing a song about women’s emotions and their secrets. When she left, the lights came up full and the auction began. Careless was given a scroll to use as a hammer – it contained Charles’ family’s genealogy – and while Credit leant against one of the pillars to read the newspaper, Charles’ family portraits were knocked down to Mr Premium at bargain prices. Naturally they used members of the audience to represent the paintings, which went down very well, along with the comments about judges, politicians, etc. The only picture Charles wouldn’t part with was the one hanging between the pillars, a portrait of Sir Oliver as a young man. This gesture impressed Sir Oliver so much that he completely reversed his opinion of Charles, and gave him double the money they’d agreed on for the rest of the portraits. Charles gave Rowley £100 to take to his impoverished cousin, although his generosity didn’t stretch as far as the waiting creditors and tradesmen.

The next scene was in Joseph’s house, which was simply furnished; just the padded bench and a screen. With Lady Teazle scheduled to arrive for an assignation, he practised some flirtatious poses on the bench – this was all very funny. When she arrived, he worked on her by pointing out that the only way to get revenge on her husband was to be unfaithful to him, and explained that her faithfulness was what made her the subject of so much rumour and gossip. Knowing her own innocence, she was careless of her behaviour and this led to suspicion. If she committed just one wrong action, she would be so much more careful about covering it up to avoid the scandal that nobody would able to point the finger at her at all.

It was a mind-bendingly perverse argument, though not without one tiny grain of truth underpinning it. She took her cape off, he removed his coat, and just when they were starting to get a bit smoochy they were interrupted by Sir Peter’s arrival! Thank goodness there was  a handy screen: Lady Teazle quickly hid behind it to avoid being seen by her husband, while Joseph, in the process of hastily tidying up, used her stocking as a neckerchief.

Sir Peter had come to talk over some problems with his friend, and the first of these was his relationship with his wife. Their quarrelling was troubling him, and he had become worried that she was involved with another man. This gave Joseph a nasty fright, and while he was trying to act the concerned friend, we had fun at his genuine concern that his own activities had been discovered. Sir Peter had drawn up two deeds. One which gave Lady Teazle a regular income for life, and the other which left most of his estate to her when he died: he wanted his friend to look them over, but without telling his wife (too late for that).

While Joseph was relieved to find that Sir Peter suspected his brother, Charles, to be the object of Lady Teazle’s interest, he became very agitated when Sir Peter moved on to the next topic, that of Joseph’s potential marriage to Maria. When the servant announced the arrival of Charles, Joseph didn’t know which way to turn – too many chickens were coming home to roost at the same time, and he only had one perch! Luckily enough, Sir Peter hit on the idea of letting Charles come up: he would hide, and Joseph could question Charles freely about his relationship with Lady Teazle to uncover the truth. Joseph was naturally unhappy about this, but not for the reasons he gave to Sir Peter.

When Sir Peter went to hide behind the screen, he became aware that that hiding place was already occupied, and by a woman. Joseph covered himself by claiming it was a French milliner who had a passion for him, and being a man of the world, Sir Peter let that go, heading off stage to hide in the closet instead. Then came another brilliant addition to the text. After lamenting the lack of a lock to keep Sir Peter safely out of the way, Joseph’s “I wish I had a key to the door” was followed, after a short pause, by “I wish I had a door”, which brought a huge laugh.

Charles was quick to deny any improper relationship with Lady Teazle, which would have eased Sir Peter’s mind, but then he went on to mention that Joseph had been linked with her, which didn’t please his brother one bit. To put an end to Charles’ apparently unstoppable flow of gossip about Joseph and Lady Teazle, Joseph told Charles that Sir Peter was in hiding in the next room, and Charles, always preferring the direct route, brought him out. Sir Peter was happy to find that Charles was blameless, at least in this regard, and then Joseph was called away to deal with yet another visitor!

With Joseph out of the way, Charles and Sir Peter naturally talked about him, and Sir Peter was eager to dismiss Charles’ notion that his brother was too prim and proper by revealing the secret of the “little French milliner”. Charles, never renowned for discretion, threw down the screen just as Joseph came back into the room, creating a very funny tableau as wife, husband and scheming seducer looked at each other in horror and shame. Charles, who found the whole situation as funny as we did, managed a few choice remarks about the situation before he left them to sort things out between themselves. He also took off Joseph’s ‘tie’ and put the stocking on Joseph’s head.

Joseph tried to put together a story about Maria to persuade Sir Peter of his and Lady Teazle’s innocence, but when the Lady herself spoke, she flatly contradicted him. Her newly-acquired dignity was touching to see, and she assured Sir Peter, as best she could in the circumstances, that she was a changed woman. She had been moved by his comments earlier and she would not support Joseph in his lies. She left with her head held high, followed by Sir Peter, with Joseph still attempting to salvage his own reputation.

Joseph was in quite a temper when Sir Oliver, pretending to be the distant relation, arrived with Rowley almost immediately after this. Joseph left for a few minutes to compose himself, allowing Rowley and Sir Oliver to exchange some pithy comments about charitable sentiments and the people who espouse them. Rowley headed off before Joseph came back, so Sir Oliver got the full treatment on his own. After denying that he’d received any help from his rich uncle, Joseph claimed to have given so much money to help his poor brother that he was, at present, unable to give Mr Stanley anything. Much as he regretted this state of affairs, he would inform Mr Stanley if he was able to help him in future. Sir Oliver wasn’t fooled for one second, and the choice of his heir was settled.

When Rowley arrived after Sir Oliver/Mr Stanley’s departure, he brought a letter to say that Sir Oliver was in town and would be calling on his nephew soon. By now, Joseph was in a state of high agitation. Too many people knew too much, and now his uncle’s return was a mixed blessing – the possibility of more money when his reputation was perilously fragile.

The next scene was at the Teazle house. Like vultures circling a dying wildebeest, the gossipmongers arrived one by one to learn what they could of the latest scandal concerning Lady Teazle and her husband. Mrs Candour was the first to arrive, closely followed by Sir Benjamin, then Lady Sneerwell and finally Crabtree. Listening to the way they compared notes and then began to elaborate on the tiny amount of genuine information they had was a very entertaining process: if only it wasn’t so prevalent in our own times! Having seen the real events for ourselves, it was great fun to hear how these gossipers competed to be right, but when Sir Benjamin introduced the duel, ‘right’ gave way to ‘most sensational’, and this was a no-holds-barred contest. Crabtree may have arrived last, but he made up for it with such a detailed, and completely inaccurate, fabrication that he carried the day.

After such a climax, it was just as well that the next arrival was Sir Oliver, who could be relied upon to inject some common sense into proceedings. After taking him for the doctor – Sir Peter was near death, apparently, after being shot, or stabbed – they were explaining about Sir Peter’s contradictory wounds when the man himself came in, risen miraculously from his death bed. He insisted the gossips leave his house, which they did, eventually, and finally he and Sir Oliver could discuss their test of the two brothers. Rowley joined them for this, and also helped Sir Oliver tease Sir Peter mercilessly by pretending that Joseph was the better man. Sir Peter was none too happy about it all, and his temper tantrums were great fun to watch.

Rowley had been asked by Lady Teazle to act as go-between with her husband, and when the teasing died down, and Sir Oliver left to go to Joseph’s house for the final unmasking of a hypocrite, Sir Peter was softened by seeing his wife, now dejected and in tears. With Rowley adding his skilful advocacy to her demeanour, Sir Peter was persuaded to be reconciled to her, leaving the way clear for a hugely entertaining final act.

Lady Sneerwell and Jospeh were conspiring in Joseph’s library, hoping to get their schemes back on track with a little help from Snake. He was to provide letters purporting to show that Charles was already engaged to Lady Sneerwell, leaving Maria free to marry Joseph. When Joseph heard someone else arrive – he correctly assumed it would be his uncle Sir Oliver – he asked Lady Sneerwell to leave him alone. When she headed for the screen, Joseph stopped her, which got a huge laugh, and ushered her out of the ‘door’ instead.

Naturally, Joseph thought that Sir Oliver was actually Mr Stanley and did his best to get rid of the unwanted guest, who proved reluctant to leave. Charles arrived just as Joseph was getting a bit physical, and confused matters even more by recognising Sir Oliver as Mr Premium, the chap who had bought almost all the family portraits. This gave Sir Oliver a short break, which he spent sitting on a chair while the brothers argued over who he was – another entertaining scene. Just as both brothers were about to eject Stanley/Premium/Oliver, Sir Peter and his entourage – Lady Teazle, Maria, Rowley – came in, and immediately revealed Sir Olivier’s true identity.

Now it was the turn of the more virtuous characters to have a go at the schemers and deceivers. Sir Oliver roundly condemned Joseph for his miserliness, and was backed up by Sir Peter, with Lady Teazle merely hinting at what she knew about the man. Joseph tried to speak in his own defence but didn’t get a chance. Charles was expecting just as much criticism from Sir Oliver, and he did get a ticking off, but Sir Oliver couldn’t stay angry with him for long, and soon the family were all reconciled.

Or were they? Maria was expected to be ecstatic with happiness that Charles was now back in Sir Peter’s good books, thus allowing their marriage, but she remained polite and aloof. It turned out that Snake’s fakes had done their work, and she believed that Charles was actually engaged to Lady Sneerwell. Joseph, scenting the possibility of some sort of revenge, produced Lady Sneerwell from the next room, and she joined in the little game with enthusiasm. Fortunately, the ever-prepared Rowley had brought Snake along with their party, and he came on now for the final unmasking of Lady Sneerwell’s plot – the letters were ‘fake news’.

Lady Sneerwell, furious that her plotting had been betrayed by Snake – he had “been offered double to speak the truth” – left them with a final jibe at Lady Teazle – “may your husband live these fifty years!” – and was followed by Joseph, still trying to pretend that he knew nothing about the business. After Snake had asked everyone not to reveal that he’d spoken the truth – bad for his reputation – he also left, and the play ended with Charles’ engagement to Maria and everyone present being nice to one another.

Although that wasn’t the end of the performance. Sir Benjamin treated us to an updated epilogue which carried on the pointed humour of the prologue, and then we were finally able to give the cast the rapturous applause which they so thoroughly deserved. This was a sublime treat, and a great reminder that such classics can and should be done regularly.

© 2015 & 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

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