A light fiddle melody begins. The stage is set, and we enter a melodious world of the ranting, rambling eccentrics of this play.
Director Niamh Kelliher and assistant director Ollie Cochran have delivered on an amazingly ridiculous, funny and ostentatious world, that cares only for social behaviour obscured under the lens of the extreme.
Most modern renditions of this play so far have been more morose in temperament. That is because this play is hard to stage. First of all, it is long, but also delicate. It is funny – absolutely – but the story is verbose and convoluted and often confusing. Therefore, it must be decided – should the audience laugh at the characters? or should the story carry the comedy? I think Niamh and Ollie were correct to prioritize character. And it paid off. Every performance was a Turkish delight, a bombardment of saturated sugar and pleasure.
On to the actors. The entire cast allow their own personalities to draw a breath of fire into their respective characters, helped along by an extraordinary costume department. The play opens with Samuel Bentley as Mr Fag, a character subject to endless jokes about the pronunciation of his name, and George Gibbs playing Thomas and later a terrified servant called David. Supportive in their roles yet equally as infectious as the rest of the cast.
The lovers: Florence Booth as Lydia Languish and Thomas Corcoran as Captain Jack Absolute. Florence Booth, a true whippersnapper, was amusingly sassy, bratty, and glittery in her performance. She verged on the edge of a mime, using eye rolls and snappy fan movements, all without sacrificing the immense relatability of her character. A challenging but well executed role. Her maid Lucy, played wonderfully by Emilia Lewis, is at times the victim to Florence’s cactus flower, which makes for a very funny dynamic, although nonetheless ridden with social commentary. Thomas Corcoran’s performance was solid and grounding, an anchor for the audience – one could say it felt like Alice and her encounters in Wonderland. Thomas was excellent at navigating this web of lovers and rivals that made his character more relatable.
Another set of lovers: James Porter as Mr Faulkland and Lucinda Turner as Miss Julia Melville. James takes on an overtly flamboyant portrayal who mines deep into the absurdity, and at times childish behaviour, of this play. His comedic mannerisms and exaggeratedly thespian presence makes for a grotesquely laughable performance. A highlight of the play undoubtedly. Lucinda, a more reserved performance, still plays her quarrels with absolute control and portrays pathos excellently.
Another amazing duo: Alannah O’Hare as Ms Malaprop and George Zu Wied as Sir Absolute. Alannah is perfectly comfortable on stage and plays the overbearing mother with zeal. Her quips are delivered with such zest, and the way she pours her thoughts out leaves the audience with no other option but to laugh. She is marvellously entertaining. George embodies a feisty old man with grey hair, spuing eccentricity, madness, and a powerful presence on stage. The pair work together so well.
Lastly, Bethan Avery as Sir Lucius O’Trigger and Thea Steadman Jones as Mr. Acres. Bethan (armed with a convincing Irish accent) plays the rival – aptly named O’Trigger. She is a restrained cannon, with swerving movements and heavy dialogue, that successfully breeds a playground of deceit. Thea on the other hand ejects from the stage like a firework. She exudes eccentricity and can pull off an intense, high-energy character that is hilarious to watch.
The one thing that didn’t work as well however was the set design. The stage is divided into three tiers, the closest one: a sitting room, the middle: a general outside area, the back: a study. The three-layered approach was novel and executed well. But the world the set aimed to support conflicted with that of the characters. On the one half we have crazy and eccentric people caught in a web of deceit and façade, yet on the other we have a drab study, a realistic outdoors’s space, and common household objects. The characters, their costumes and the music exude privilege, splendour, and flamboyancy, yet the stage (except for the sitting room) doesn’t reflect this ornate glitter. It feels like bread, where there should have been cake. This was a missed opportunity to commit to a visually fanciful affair on pair with the actors and costumes.
Nonetheless, the characters and their eccentricities are a joyful, delightful contribution to Durham’s Student Theatre scene.
DUCT’s The Rivals runs from November 30th to December 2nd at The Assembly Rooms Theatre.
Image: Durham Classical Theatre