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I studied Sheridan’s The Rivals for something called ‘O level’ English Literature a lifetime ago. It was one of the first plays I ever saw, in a local school production. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since, and it’s one of only a few 18th Century comedies that is still regularly produced today, so there have been a number of opportunities to reacquaint myself with it, all of which I’ve enjoyed. The best was on the same stage as this, the NT’s Olivier, 39 years ago, where designer John Gunter built Bath’s Royal Crescent, individual houses coming out and revolving to reveal a variety of interiors, and Sir Michael Hordern getting more laughs just eating a boiled egg that many comedies get in a whole act. Then along comes Richard Bean & Oliver Chris to produce an adaptation set in the Second World War, specifically the Battle of Britain. As it is currently customary, it arrives on the NT’s Olivier stage two years later than planned.

Mrs Malaprop’s country estate has been requisitioned as an air base. The rivals in question are vying for the hand of her niece Lydia Languish. Mrs M. is promoting pilot Jack Absolute, whose father Sir Anthony owns a lot of land in Devon, well the whole county actually. Sikh airman Tony Khattri seeks to woo her with his dodgy poetry and Aussie pilot Bob Acres will do anything to win her hand. Lydia is obsessed by Dudley the aircraft mechanic, a bit of northern rough, but Mrs M’s maid Lucy is determined to see her off. The adaptation works brilliantly, bawdier, naughtier and funnier. It’s littered with both verbal and visual gags. I haven’t laughed so much since Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors eleven whole years ago.

There are so many star performances I’m not sure I know where to start. Caroline Quentin relishes every malapropism (the play coined the term) and there are way more than in Sheridan’s original, so many that it’s hard to keep up. Peter Forbes is simply terrific as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who eventually gets his girl too. We know how good Kerry Goddard is at comedy from a string of TV performances, well she’s just as good on stage. Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-at-the-knees turn has the same effect as Michael Hordern’s boiled egg. James Corrigan’s creation of Bob Acres from the outback is an absolute delight. Many of them break the fourth wall regularly to superb comic effect.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of director Emily Burns, who appears to have been learning her craft at the feet of masters like Nicholas Hytner and Simon Godwin. Her production is brilliant, and propels her into the directors premiere league in one move. Designer Mark Thompson fills the Olivier stage with the English countryside and a country house, with a nod to John Gunter (intentional or accidentally) when the interiors come out of the house. There’s even a thrilling dance scene choreographed by Lizzi Gee which gives former Strictly contestant Quentin and winner Kelvin Fletcher (playing mechanic Dudley) an opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is a joy from start to finish. I can’t wait to go back and see it all over again.

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