Modern manners resonance

The School for Scandal (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre 

June 18 – July 3

Villanova Players’ production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 play, “The School for Scandal” is introduced by the sounds of “English Country Dances”, which, along with its of-the-era fashionable London staging, plants in firmly in time and place. Yet, it does not take long for its audience to realise that the delightful comedy of manners is actually quite modern in sensibilities, as things begin with a gossip scene.

Wealthy widow, Lady Sneerwell (an impressive Helen Ekundayo) and her hireling discuss her various scandal-spreading plots. When the topic is raised of the brothers Joseph (Michael McNish) and Charles (Gabriel King) Surface, the mischievous Lady Sneerwell explains her complex strategy. She socialises often with Joseph, the conventional and apparently more upright brother, however, she is really in love with the extravagant Charles, whose penchants for drinking, gambling, and womanising cause him to be perpetually in-debt.  Charles, in turn, is enamoured of the young ward of Sir Peter Tezle (John Evans), who Joseph has also decided to woo.

It’s a busy plot that only starts towards clarity upon arrival from abroad of jolly Sir Oliver Surface (Leo Bradley) the brothers’ wealthy and generous uncle, a businessman who has never lost faith in Charles’s worth.Indeed, withwordy dialogue and plotting from the 18th century, it is initially difficult to follow who is who. Some hesitations also disrupt the pacey rhythm of the play’s script. When it is patterned its delivery, however, the work’s Oscar Wilde-like wit sings loudly, especially in its commentaries around marriage.

There are plenty of one-liners and also humour in the competing hyperbole of passive-aggressive, tongue-in-cheek pettiness that characterises the quarrels of the appropriately-named Teazles. Indeed, as Sir Peter and his Lady wife, Evans and Hannah Martin enliven their shared scenes of not-even-veiled hostilities as the couple jostle for one-up-manship in their mis-matched union. Martin, in particular gives an appropriately high camp screechy and pouty performance, especially in flippant response to her petulant husband. Physical humour also contributes to the mayhem of the play’s comedy; Shakespearean-style eavesdropping is heightened to double effect and there is a pantomimish disagreement as to the identity of the moneylender Mr. Premium, as part of a plan for Sir Oliver to visit each of the brothers incognito to test their characters.

With lavish, detailed costumes, aristocratic painted faces, huge hair and fluttering fans, there is a definite “Dangerous Liasons” feel to things… “Dangerous Liasons” with a “Gossip Girl” twist as one of Lady Sneerwell’s blatantly hypocritical gossipmongers, the ironically-named Mrs Candour(Karen Neale) moralistically decries she dares not repeat such things as those she has just noted. Not only is what was written as a 1777 lampoon of the gossiping aristocrats within Sheridan’s social circle still of resonance today, but amidst its tangle of plots, subplots, deception and rapid comings and goings, there is a pleasant reconciliation of virtue over vice. And while it is length is a challenge, “The School for Scandal” serves as a good vehicle for performers to hone their skills.

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