Theatre Review: The School for Scandal at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s second production of the season is from Sheridan – not the first time the company has strayed outside its Shakespearean roots. Unexpectedly for SATTF regulars though, it’s this play, rather than its season companion Romeo and Juliet, which has the more familiar, possibly even conventional, feel.
Much of this is down to Andrew Hilton being back at the helm, having temporarily handed control to new young director Polina Kalinina. In The School for Scandal a measured clarity of text returns to replace Kalinina’s viscerally exciting but occasionally uneven interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the plot of Sheridan’s comedy of manners masterpiece is delivered with all the verbal dexterity of a literary joust.
That London in 1777 was a scandalous mix of salons and soirées is reflected from the very beginning, as Lady Sneerwell (Julia Hills) and her associate Mr Snake (Paul Currier) gossip about the circumstances surrounding Sir Peter Teazle and his family. There’s plenty to speculate over; inveterate bachelor Sir Peter, recently married to a much younger wife, has acted as informal guardian to the two brothers Charles and Joseph Surface since their father died. Charles is impecuniously extravagant but good-hearted; Joseph is considered in polite society to be responsible and full of noble feeling, although it quickly becomes clear he’s anything but. Both are reliant on the benevolence of their absent uncle Sir Oliver Surface and, for very different reasons, are rivals for the hand of Sir Peter’s ward Maria.
The production is sumptuously costumed in the wigs, wide skirts and fine brocades of the period, although Dominic Power’s prologue and epilogue, adapted to feature mobile phones, social media and selfies, feel like an obviously signalled attempt to connect the play to the present day. Amusingly spoken by Byron Mondahl, it’s funny but unsubtle – the sort of message that would be more satisfying for the audience to think of themselves.
The cast do a great job in bringing Sheridan’s potentially two-dimensional characters to life; Paapa Essiedu, Romeo in Kalinina’s production, shines again as the self-serving Joseph, plotting to marry Maria (Hannah Lee) for her fortune and leave Charles free for the designs of Lady Sneerwell. Essiedu distinctively delivers Sheridan’s eighteenth century lines with naturalistic modernity while Fiona Sheehan sparkles as the tittle-tattling busybody Mrs Candour. Daisy Whalley appears at home in the role of the coquettish and demanding young Lady Teazle while Christopher Bianchi’s comic timing and controlled outrage are perfect as her much put-upon husband Sir Peter.
Although tautly directed and glittering with wit and malicious asides, the play does start to feel long at over three hours. Fortunately, to relieve any flagging, the most entertaining moments arrive after the interval as Sir Oliver (Chris Garner), newly returned from the East Indies, dons a disguise to ascertain the true nature of his two nephews. The scene where Charles (Jack Wharrier) refuses to sell Sir Oliver his own portrait is hilariously delivered, as is the uncovering of Joseph’s secret liaison and duplicitous double-dealings in his library.
This is a undoubtedly a skilful and satisfying interpretation of Sheridan’s most famous scandal-mongering work, encapsulating the comedy and hinting at the tragedy that the power of words can bring. While it has you laughing from the start, it still leaves you with plenty to think about.