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School For Scandal - a Confection of Fun

Siubhan Harrison as Lady Sneerwell. Photo by Marc Brenner © RSC


The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Directed by Tinuke Craig, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 6 September 2024.

Review by Wynne Lang

Sheridan wrote this play in 1777 to show how shallow and vindictive the members of the chattering classes could be.  With their extravagant life styles and little to do with their time, they turned to gossip and scandal to fill their days.

Opportunities to do so were also plentiful, with the emergence of salons, coffee houses, urban parks and theatres, as well as the beginnings of a flourishing press. Letter-writing was in vogue (Bridgerton, anyone?), and the perfect vehicle for spreading poison.  So, has our attitude to these things changed very much over time?  The RSC thinks not.

Tara Tijani as Lady Teazle and Stefan Adegbola as Joseph Surface. Photo by Marc Brenner © RSC

Lady Sneerwell, queen of the gossips, delivers an amusing prologue which makes clear that  modern media’s insatiable greed for scandal is not very different from what we are about to witness in the play. This is the first of many textual updatings which might annoy purists but work well on the whole in adding to the play’s modern relevance. There is a spectacular entrance for the actors who are about to delight us.  The backdrop of the candy floss pink stage is a perfect setting for the nonsense and fun that is about to amuse the audience and the costumes are delightfully ridiculous, and largely very pink.

The School for Scandal at the RSC. Photo by Marc Brenner © RSC

Lady Sneerwell and her similarly named chums Candour, Backbite, Crabtree and her manservant Snake, wish to blight the prospects of dissolute but likeable Charles Surface, living on credit but awaiting an inheritance from a rich uncle. In this they are abetted by his hypocritical brother Joseph, who is jealous that the young ward of Sir Peter Teazle, Maria, seems to prefer Charles to him. Sir Peter, a life-long bachelor, is also governor of the two young men since their father’s death, but has recently taken a young bride, and to say he is struggling with the transition would be putting it mildly. The new Lady Teazle is also an occasional visitor to Lady Sneerwell’s scandal school. The unexpected arrival of rich Uncle Oliver Surface adds to the plotting and confusion, providing rich audience entertainment.

The company of The School for Scandal. Photo by Marc Brenner © RSC

It would have been nigh impossible to be in the audience and not rock with mirth.  The excellence of the whole cast in mining the text for humour is hard to overstate. It was a joy to witness the exuberance that all the players brought to their parts and because of this the audience enjoyment was even greater.  They lived up to their ridiculous names by posturing and pouting with gusto, and hats off to the wardrobe and make-up departments for making this a visual feast, albeit a very pink one. 

Tara Tijani as Lady Teazle. Photo by Marc Brenner © RSC

The two characters representing the sensible virtues, Sir Peter Teazle and Sir Oliver, are suitably dressed in sombre clothing so as to stand out in the sea of pink.  The character of Joseph Surface, very ably  played by Stefan Adegola,  also stands out through his mix of pantomime villainry and  self-regarding sentiment.

Although on one level this production is a frivolous confection and enjoyable as a tonic in the rather bleak times we live in, it also, lightly but persistently, characterizes aspects of our times- power without responsibility, a belief that money solves everything, and an inability or unwillingness to distinguish the bogus from the true- these were concerns then, and are even more so now. Try to see this if you can.

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