THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _6th SEP.

July 10, 2024

images © Marc Brenner @ RSC.

With its vivid flushes of neon pink and striking sans serif scene-setters, Tinuke Craig’s funky, punky and oh-so-camp The School for Scandal certainly lands its visual impact. Between Alex Lowde’s heightened, 18th century-via-Warhol aesthetic, Ravi Deepres’ video portraits and ripples of modernity injected into Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy of errors with mentions of super-injunctions, political disgrace and the like, it’s a decidedly post-modern affair. Think of it as Bridgerton by way of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, with a splash of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette thrown in for good period measure.

Like Shonda Rhimes’ wildly successful Netflix period romp, scandal, gossip and social intrigue form the crux of School’s tale. Following a vogue-lite hybrid of high fashion runway and drag ball open, this stylish production flies out of the gate with a brand new preface. Siubhan Harrison’s delectably snide Lady Sneerwell, the grand dame of gossip mongering, seductively invites us in amongst her court of conspirers and malcontents, and for good measure instructs the audience to withhold their judgement.

We may all be about to witness a rabble of bitches and backstabbers, lies and deception, but we bloody love it.

Like many a Shakespeare farce, Richard Brinkley Sheridan’s romp is a melting pot of crossed purposes and collapsing ruses. Harrison’s Sneerwell relishes her role in architecting social scandal and disgrace, and has thrown her lot in with Joseph (Stefan Adegbola), one half of the Surface brotherhood, due to inherit a fortune from their formerly absentee uncle, Sir Oliver (Wil Johnson). His brother, Charles (John Leader) is a flamboyant, freewheeling playboy, yet shows flairs of kindness and joie de vivre by comparison to his more cunning, sentiment-preaching kin. Feisty, freewheeling young Lady Teazle (Tara Tijani), meanwhile, is slowly driving her kindly, older husband, Sir Peter (Geoffrey Streatfield) to despair, despite the duo having only recently been wed.

Confusion, paranoia and frustration all explode into a melange of plotting and subterfuge as this colourful group of characters begin to fall foul of their own ambitions, desires and machinations.

As mentioned, there are moments where Craig intercuts the classic piece with more contemporary comedy or perspective. They have great, knowing fun getting their characters to clumsily dodge the source of Sir Oliver’s fortunes, for instance, born of his history with a rather problematic merchant company of old. The fourth wall is routinely broken, with characters opining or darting commentary at the audience directly throughout. Joseph’s penchant for waxing lyrical is given angelic, almost revelatory accompaniment from above, and always gets its laughs.

It’s a bright, colourful jolt of fun, carried on performances that are writ as large as any of Lowde’s grand, decadent costumes. Adegbola is a standout as the charming, manipulative Joseph, though he is well met by his on-stage brother, a wonderful animated and buoyant John Leader, who injects Charles with an elastic and infectious exuberance. Streatfeild and Tijani are great fun as the warring Teazles, each in their own way lending the piece its few glimpses of real heart and growth.

“…a side-splitting, scene-stealing Emily Houghton, whose pompous yet underhanded Mrs Candour represents something akin to a grotesque Victoria Wood creation on steroids.”

Amongst the rest of the cast, Wil Johnson leans into the nudge nudge, wink winkery as his returning Sir Oliver adopts a variety of disguises to test the mettle and quality of his heirs, whilst Tadeo Martinez is every inch the odious bootlick as a transatlantic Mr Snake. And particular credit must also go to a side-splitting, scene-stealing Emily Houghton, whose pompous yet underhanded Mrs Candour represents something akin to a grotesque Victoria Wood creation on steroids. Houghton once again proves herself a formidable character actress, and her expressions and facial tics alone will lhave you yearning for more than her handful of appearances.

Funny, sassy and spirited, with high camp to spare, it’s nevertheless difficult to shake the sense that Craig’s adaptation isn’t perhaps quite as pacy or taut as it ought be. There’s an abundance of repetition and reacquainting the audience with key threads and relationships within Sheridan’s text that could quite easily be truncated, or excised altogether, here. For a show that looks and sounds like a pop music video, the periods where it languishes and plods through its more meandering beats only feel amplified.

“For a show that looks and sounds like a pop music video, the periods where it languishes and plods through its more meandering beats only feel amplified.”

And, whilst there are plenty of laughs along the way, it never quite hits the same uproarious levels of frenetic chaos or frequency of hilarity as its current counterpart, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which it plays in rep with at the RSC this summer.

With a new epilogue bolted on that juxtaposes Sneerwell’s salacious open, and ends the evening on a pleasant and affirming note, chances are you will walk away from School for Scandal suitably entertained and amused. Craig’s production is lavish and certainly eye-opening to look at, but much like Bridgerton before it, is never quite as revelatory or original as it may first appear.

And that, for some, may be perhaps the greatest scandal of all; rather than leaving one feel thoroughly debauched or invigorated as its optics and name may suggest, audiences of this light, frothy jolt of neon fun will have to settle for simply being tickled rather pink, instead.

A neon jolt of colourful, characterful fun. Whilst Craig’s production is overshadowed in all but aesthetic by its funnier, pacier RSC counterpart this Summer, there is still plenty to enjoy and be tickled pink by in this lively, spirited and suitably sassy comedy.

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