This play is timely. We know this because there’s an iPhone on the programme cover and the online marketing declares:
“The scandal-mongers of eighteenth century London seem extraordinarily close to home in Sheridan’s famous comedy.Lady Sneerwell, Sir Benjamin Backbite and the unctuous Mr Snake are horribly – but deliciously – familiar. In our own time they could well have found themselves alongside Andy Coulson in the Old Bailey dock.”
And on the surface, yes, this claim does seem like a fairly reasonable one to make. However, aside from the basic message that gossips exist now and in the past – some writing for newspapers and some preaching from their armchairs – and that this is essentially a bad thing as, you know, gossips are Bad People, the actual link between the narrative of The School for Scandal and phone hacking is pretty tenuous. Once we get through the initial scenes of tittle-tattle in the salon, the main focus of the play is on an uncle’s choice between two nephews: the one a smooth-talking adulterer masquerading as Mr. Straight-and-Narrow, and the other a profligate boozer riddled with debt who, we eventually learn, has a heart of charitable gold. The question of the two Messrs. Surface (Paapa Essiedu and Jack Wharrier) and whether the ‘right’ one will end up winning the fortune is the most compelling part of the story and, in many senses, doesn’t rely on gossip at all, only the ability of one man – their uncle (Chris Garner) – to see through their respective facades and make a (albeit slightly vain) decision on who the good guy really is.
The reason I open with discussing the advertising of the show is because of the effect it has on shaping an audience member’s response to a show. The recent The Life and Times of Fanny Hill at the Bristol Old Vic was packaged as being a (with the emphasis on this word) bawdy romp and the advertising photo was of an over-powdered Caroline Quentin pulling a Carry On “ooh-err” face. And so I accordingly went with the aim of letting myself enjoy some thigh-slapping bad sex jokes and, indeed, had a good time doing so. The School for Scandal is considerably better done than Fanny Hill, particularly in the acting and charisma of the cast, yet I felt my enjoyment of it was somewhat disjointed by the way in which the packaging of the production seemed to suggest it should be received as a production with an ultimately serious and timely message.
For whilst it may be possible to dredge out cultural commentary on pretty much anything (See: Kim Kardashian’s bottom, for instance) The School for Scandal is not a serious play with a serious message and, let us come to the point, that is exactly why it is an enjoyable and very amusing play to stage. It doesn’t need, therefore, to be packaged to anyone as anything more than what Fanny Hill essentially said it was: just good chucklesome entertainment with a few Old Man-marries-Young Woman jokes thrown in to the whale-boned mix.
The enthusiastic reception of Fanny Hill and of Roger McGough’s adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope at the Theatre Royal in Bath in spring 2013 prove that audiences do not need to be cajoled into seeing men in white stockings make silly jokes in rhyme. They go because this type of play is gleeful to watch and – even if with all three claims of ‘serious’ subject matters could be made – foremost they provide an evening’s escapist humour.
In that respect they are like fashion. We can take a PhD in it and turn it into a discussion of wealth, class, gender and the cultural Other, but more often than not the true pleasure that emanates from encountering it comes from a mindless sense of awe at its flawless sheen, its stylish piecing together and its witty twist on an excepted norm. How fitting (literally) then, that The School for Scandal’s cast should be so beautifully costumed (by Hannah de Ville, Emma Bailey and Lynn Foster). Mrs Candour (Fiona Sheehan), especially, was straight from a Gainsborough canvas in lemon yellow silk and white classical scarf – sherbet hues unable to sweeten her cackling attitude. Similarly the mantua dresses of Lady Sneerwell (Julia Hills) were the more salacious cousins of those worn by Mrs. Andrews when perched on an iron bench. The winner of all beauty though, was Lady Teazle (Daisy Whalley) whose flower-strewn hair provided a fitting visual reference to Ophelia for a character going slightly mad in her situation.
With its fast-paced dialogue and enigmatic cast, there is much to recommend this production on its own merit, without it having to be packaged as something dealing with ‘issues’. Perhaps, also, there was also a feeling of wanting to rebel as the blatant insistence that a performance has contemporary parallels seems slightly patronizing to an audience who should – if the similarity really exists – be able to get this point entirely on their own.
The casting list of the production, as I look at it now, is backed with a delightfully obnoxious shade of sugared almonds pink. The title is iced across the middle in tasteless italics and accented with a mauve border. It is as though Changing Rooms did the Palace of Versailles in a two-bed in Upminster. Everything about it is frothy and wrong and yet, delicious. Forget the real world and the News of the World. Go when you are ready for sugar and sleaze and have a good time about it.