Theatre: A lesson in farce

  • 13 December 2006
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It's a silly, silly play, but one which has stood the test of time. Edward O'Hare finds something to laugh at the Abbey's revival of The School for Scandal 


Comedy is no funny business. Humorous writers know that when the fickle tastes of audiences change, their work is the first to be thrust without care upon the cultural scrapheap. The list of once-popular television comedies and stand-up comics could run from here to oblivion. This means that Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, which has been a favourite with audiences since it was first performed in 1777, is a remarkable theatrical survivor.

Directed by Jimmy Fay, The School for Scandal may seem a peculiar choice for the Abbey's 2006 Christmas show. This is not a sentimental story and has none of the gaudy preaching we have come to expect from Christmas plays. In fact, The School for Scandal is the perfect antidote to them. Charity, honesty and gentleness of spirit are nowhere to be seen. Instead, The School for Scandal is a parade of excess, vulgarity and utter self-absorbtion. Every character is concerned about one thing – money. Who has it, who has lost it and where they can get it.

The plot is pure farce. Bellicose old buffer Sir Peter Teazle has finally forsaken bachelorhood and  got hitched. The young Lady Teazle may not have much education but she knows what she wants and, more importantly, she knows how to get it. The rooms of Sir Peter's grand mansion have become packed with extravagances and unpaid bills are piling up. If this were not enough ill-luck for one man, the dreadful Lady Sneerwell, a demonic fountain of gossip, lies and suspicion, is plotting to destroy the wretched marriage for her own amusement.

The other tale follows the return to England from foreign climes of the wealthy merchant Sir Oliver. Sir Oliver must decide which of his two nephews deserves his benevolence and a mention in his will but finds to his horror that they have become villains. Joseph is a fawning bookworm and a massive hypocrite fond of spouting terrible self-coined sentiments. Charles is a bounder who lives in elegant penury, keeps a house full of ne'er do wells and has sold everything to finance his disgraceful existence. Between these two rascals the unfortunate Sir Oliver must choose.

Jimmy Fay has cleverly decided not to even attempt a subtle approach. The School for Scandal is a very, very silly play and it is the moments that show an awareness of this that are the most enjoyable. Leonore McDonagh's costumes are dizzyingly bright, the actors' mannerisms affected to the point of contortion and the pace is frantic. People hide behind screens and in cupboards. There are ill-fitting wigs and pointy shoes. A man screams at the top of his voice for two hours. The whole thing is a living cartoon.

The humour in the first act, basically a series of witty put-downs, quickly becomes tiresome and stodgy. The second act is far neater and contains a number of hilarious set-pieces, the best of which is an improvised auction of Charles's family portraits. At the core of the play is a fine performance by Nick Dunning as Sir Oliver. His may be the play's least overtly funny character but his precise timing and physicality make it so. Of the grotesques, David Pearse is wonderful as Sir Benjamin Backbite, resembling some vast, lecherous cherub. Although only briefly featured, Ned Dennehy is brilliant in the dual role of the creepy conspirator Mr Snake and one of Charles's revelling, wine-soaked rakes. Special praise must go to set designer Ferdia Murphy and lighting designer Paul Keogan. Together they have created a room that is a superb optical illusion and has more tricks in it than a conjuror's bag.