“‘The Rivals’ is simply a joy to watch. The cast were clearly enjoying themselves as much as the audience, and brought a breath of fresh air to the stage…

Split into three levels, the Assembly Rooms stage housed an innumerable array of props and furniture, creating distinct settings for the many plot lines about to unfold in DUCT’s ‘The Rivals’. Director Niamh Kellier, assisted by Ollie Cochran, wasted no space with their staging choices and this paid off. The set was carefully crafted, and commendation should go to production manager Aaron Lo and the team, particularly for accomplishing the herculean task of putting all those props on stage.

Setting the tone for the play was the ever-reoccurring Mr Fag, played by Samuel Bentley whose dryness and comedic choices ensured the recycled joke of pronouncing his name never got old. Alongside him, George Gibbs played Thomas and David – characters ultimately responsible for harbouring the weight of complex misunderstandings. Gibbs did so with conviction and the necessary stress of understanding the plot. Our first introduction to Lydia Languish presented a girl spoiled by her own fantasies, and from the moment she hit the stage Flo Booth was cascaded in a whirl of pink, glitter, and captivation. Though Lydia’s ramblings are incongruent and futile, Booth delivered them with delicacy and dramatic flair, highlighting the extremities of Lydia’s conflicts and forcing us to sympathise with the ridicule. Aided by her fan, Booth commanded the stage with her ever-exaggerated sighing, eye-rolling, and feet-stomping, but the love we felt for Lydia was evidence that Booth performed with such complexity that we were able to sympathise with such a brat. Furthermore, the presence of Lydia’s maid Lucy, brings a lovely dramatic contrast to the play, and Emilia Lewis convincingly played the difficult part of a woman who knew everything and nothing.

‘The Rivals’ was undoubtedly confusing, with identities in the multiple and relationships in the many. However, Kellier and Cochran directed with clarity and strength, particularly evident through character distinction. This was supported by Tom Corcoran’s fascinating performance as Captain Jack Absolute. With the most addresses to the audience, Corcoran guided us throughout, his mannerisms skilfully navigating this meta-theatrical divide. He grappled fantastically with the many back and forths, never compromising the hefty dialogue. Most impressively, Corcoran convincingly played the Ensign Beverley as distinctly different; his physicality did not go unnoticed, and the chemistry between him and Booth shone, aided by the delicate pink wash. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the despondent and desperate Mr Faulkland delighted audiences. James Porter spared no moment on stage; his incredible physicality and comedic timing combined with the battering eyelashes of a man in love made laughter natural and willing. His command was phenomenal and special commendation must be given to Lucinda Turner, his frequent scene partner, who controlled and dominated the lovers’ spats between Faulkland and Julia without ever compromising character. Turner and Porter played a ridiculous couple by all conceptions, but they also conveyed nuanced romantic foundations, a difficult task often neglected in comedies. Julia’s end outburst at the realisation she may have lost her love is one filled with genuine sorrow and Turner did not shy away from performing this.

The same can be said for the matriarch of the play, Mrs Malaprop, whose misuse of words may have gone unnoticed, but her presence certainly did not. Alannah O’Hare had as strong a grip on the audience as Malaprop had on the life of Lydia, and O’Hare maintained an outstanding level of dramatic performance throughout, ensuring no beat was missed and no reaction went undeveloped. Frequently accompanied by Sir Anthony Absolute, played by George zu Wied, the two never lost a laugh. Zu Wied should be praised for his astonishingly accurate portrayal of an old man, and for never allowing the walking stick to get the better of him. He played Sir Anthony with the commitment needed for such a strong character and he presided over the drama both audibly and metaphorically. The two of them crafted a convincing onstage alliance, which made for fantastic comedic and dramatic relief. Among the many side plots, the unravelling of Sir Lucius O’Trigger’s (Bethan Avery) anguish and the sadness of Mr Acres (Thea Stedman-Jones) was not unforgotten. The circularity of the two gentlemen’s plan to duel potential ‘rivals’ not only provided opportunity to understand the play’s name but portrayed an unlikely friendship. Stedman-Jones’ performance of Acres was spectacularly well-timed and accompanied with little jumps of joy, as they flawlessly presented a flawed but loveable character. Avery should especially be commended on performing anger in a ridiculous setting and her strong performance was needed to highlight the consequence of ‘The Rival’s if it had been a tragedy.

‘The Rivals’ was not completely without flaw unfortunately. Mistimed lighting cues were costly to a production which relied upon staging and levels to guide its many storylines. The stairs also took no prisoners, and sadly more than one prop (and line) was lost in the midst of it all. However, these mistakes did not phase those on stage and evidently didn’t stay long with the audience, who only stopped laughing to gasp in shock as the plot unravelled.

Special mention should be given to the DUCT costume budget which propelled the fantastic portrayals of such eccentric characters into a whole new level of production. The girls in particularly should be recognised for their control of hoop skirts and fans, which were arguably characters of their own.

‘The Rivals’ is simply a joy to watch. The cast were clearly enjoying themselves as much as the audience, and brought a breath of fresh air to the stage.

By Jasmine Starbuck

The Rivals will continue to show at the Sir Thomas Allen Assembly Rooms Theatre at 19:30 on Friday and Saturday the 1st and 2nd of December.

Photo Credits: DUCT