Sheridan's complex comedy The School For Scandal was the inaugural play that opened Nottingham's historic Theatre Royal in 1865. The 18th Century play had already been a popular night out at any regional theatre since its first ever performance at London's Drury Lane theatre on May 8th 1777. It continues to delight with its stock characters named after their personalities and their delectation in creating scandal in society. The higher in society the victims are the more thrilling (to the scandal mongers) is their demise. It seems that things haven't changed so much since Sheridan's day as modern day gossips still love to pour over the gossip magazines and many a celeb exposé and debt issues are common themes in all the modern media.
This performance of The School For Scandal is revived as part of the celebrations of Nottingham Theatre Royal's 150th anniversary. The Theatre Royal community theatre ensemble (The Royal Company) take the unusual stance of presenting the play in a promenade performance with various parts of the action played in a variety of locations in and around the theatre and its public spaces. With a constantly mobile audience of around fifty members, all eves dropping on the comical and naughty goings on in Sheridan's comedy of manners, the story becomes a lot more immediate than it might be in a classic proscenium arch production. Much use is also made of bringing individual audience members comically into the action. This type of presentation makes the audience true voyeurs to the piece almost to the point of direct complicity. The theatrical tables are even turned on the audience at one point when we are seated right here on the main stage watching the actors perform against the background of the sumptuous green and gold of the theatre's interior!
The play satirises the behaviour and customs of the upper classes through witty dialogue and an intricate plot incorporating ludicrous situations that expose the characters' shortcomings. Sheridan's characters are somewhat cartoon like and take on bold characteristics such as; the terrible bore; the gossip; the wastrel and the rich uncle. There are a massive twenty one actors in the cast and live music is played by John Crawford and Richard Mercia. The very stylised clownish make up of the entire Royal Company helps considerably to convey these types. It is almost if these personalities have slipped out of a satirical painting of the era. The costumes designed with a modern twist by theatre design students at Nottingham Trent University are superbly conceived and made up, especially the paper wigs made from modern day gossip magazines.
Major gossips Lady Sneerwell (Deborah Porter-Walker) and Mrs Candour (Michelle Smith) are portrayed to perfection in their snobbery as is Snake (Ade Andrews) with his opening complex monologue gleefully depicting who he has sold down the line with his deceitful lies. The Surface family - Sir Oliver (Barbara Whisbey) and brothers Charles and Joseph (Madison Wales and Charlie Osborne) two young men under the guidance of Sir Peter Teazle, (Mik Horvath) are all played with broad strokes and their various character traits come through well with this style of acting. Both the brothers are played by female actors as is Sir Oliver Surface. Such theatrical artifice works terrifically in this production.
The scene where Sir Peter Teazle complains about his young wife Lady Teazle (Victoria Murphy) and her spendthrift ways works well and the common argument over money is as appropriate now as it was in the society of 18th Century Britain. The three clown characters (Mercedes Assad, Nikki Disney and Kayleigh Phillips) are played with great wit and energy and help keep the piece buoyant throughout the promenade transitions and within the play itself.
Edward Crook is superb as the rather camp Sir Benjamin Backbite, being all leopard skin and wicked asides and a louche poetic nature. Crook's stage performance as Backbite, although sadly brief, (as are a lot of the School For Scandal characters) leant a great deal of substance to the play as a whole and really brought out the self possessed nature of the scandal mongers. Contrariwise, the only truly moral character Moses is played with an aloof and knowing grace by the bespectacled and cautiously strutting Alina Hughes.
The School For Scandal is a complex and enjoyable play full of more sub plots than an over zealous design for a garden allotment, but The Royal Company do it proud in a gorgeously accessible production that Richard Brinsley Sheridan would have been rightly proud of here at Nottingham's Theatre Royal. It is directed with great style by David Longford. With a strong and likeable theatrical presence Longford also plays narrator Walter Montgomery who was the first theatre manager at the Theatre Royal.