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School of Scandal at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the RSC – review

School of Scandal at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the RSC – review

Richard B. Sheridan’s comedy directed by Tinuke Craig will run through September 6

School for Scandal Company, © RSC/Marc Brenner

Apart from Christmas shows, I have trouble remembering the last time the Royal Shakespeare Theatre produced a play that was not written by the playwright. Under new co-artistic directors Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey, the first to claim the distinction is Richard B. Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners and morals. School of Scandal.

Why they opted for a rather archaic, creaky old warhorse is a question that Tinuke Craig’s lively production doesn’t fully answer, despite her extensive efforts to bring it into the 21st century and give it contemporary resonance. There are new prologues, epilogues and scene-by-scene tie-ins that hammer home the message that scandal is as audience-pleasing as ever, and the show’s set design (Alex Lowde) is a fashionable, eye-catching twist on 18th-century wigs and petticoats. DJ Walde’s rhythmic score leans on a five-piece rock band for its influences, and Ingrid MacKinnon’s dance moves feel genuinely current.

But as a result, the show often tries a little too hard, whether in the highly stylised delivery of the lines, the neon lighting (Oliver Fenwick) or simply the over-the-top pinkness of it all – Lowde’s set design is deliberately garish and makes no concessions to subtlety. Even at almost three hours, it all moves at a frantic pace, with too many gags lost to gibberish and very little light and shade in the pacing, leaving the viewer breathless as they try to keep up with Sheridan’s barrage of subplots and intrigue.

Geoffrey Streatfeild is at his best as Sir Peter Teazle, an older man who has taken a young wife and now regrets it, fearing she is considering taking a lover and blind to the machinations of those who would deceive him. Streatfeild’s seasoned Shakespearean sensibility reveals a sense of comic timing and centering that adds much-needed stability to the enterprise. Elsewhere, Siubhan Harrison revels in her role as the gossipy chieftain Lady Sneerwell, decked out in hoop skirts so wide she has to awkwardly walk sideways to get on and off stage.

Siubhan Harrison (as Lady Sneerwell) in The School for Scandal, © RSC/Marc Brenner

Director Craig throws a ton of visual energy into the mix, and there’s plenty of comedy to be mined from this inherently improbable setup, but like Joseph and Charles Surface, the dissolute brothers at the heart of the ruse, there’s an irritating sense that it’s all rather superficial. The running gag of supposedly meaningful “feelings” being conveyed in a spotlight to the sound of a heavenly choir gets tiresome pretty quickly, while the new jokes about super-compulsions or online privacy lack the satirical edge that Sheridan’s original clearly had in its day.

It is very bright and loud, and is blatantly played for laughs – which certainly happens – and repeats itself with The Merry Wives of Windsor until September. Whether he fully deserves his place on the RST stage is another question.