The vapours of eighteenth-century gossip are compared to the wind-borne whispers of rumour conveyed from one Smartphone to another in this production of Richard Sheridan’s A School for Scandal. Shakespeare and the Tobacco Factory seem determined to bring this dusty farce into the modern age, with varying success.
From the moment that the prologue steps on stage and begins to gleefully tell the audience about a rumour he has heard about a man ejected from his mistress’ bedroom trouserless, we are the confidantes to a cast of frivolous gossipers.
This makes the production fun but also suggests a lack of confidence in the original play to amuse. The uproarious laughter which greets the prologue, spoken by Byron Mondahl, and adapted cleverly to the era of retweeting by Dominic Power, fades somewhat in the slowly-paced first scene of Sheridan’s play.
The laughs do build, however, as the play progresses, partly because the cast pick up energy as the plot reaches its climax. Director Andrew Hilton could have taken the scissors to the play a bit; the first half is rather long but the second is much more successful in terms of length and laughs.
Despite the play being interested in surface rather than substance, there are also some cleverly meta-theatrical moments. In one scene, the lights go up on the audience, seated in the round, and our faces become the portraits of Charles Surface’s ancestors. Charles, played with gusto by Jack Wharrier, starts to drunkenly sell us off, while commenting on their (our) features. The multiple entrances in the Factory Theatre provide spaces in which characters can hide from each other, and the funniest scenes are undoubtedly those which feature multiple eavesdroppers.
There are also some excellent performances, notably from Benjamin Whidrow as the scurrilous Crabtree, whose natural comic talent brings the gossiping scenes alive. This play recycles the cast of Romeo and Juliet and there is an interesting chemistry between Pappa Essiedu and Daisy Whalley, who in both plays are attracted to and divided from each other.
Although it takes time to get going, this is undoubtedly a fun and seductively frolicsome production.