The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic: A Must-See Show

To celebrate its 250th anniversary, Bristol Old Vic has developed an enviable year-round programme.

It includes classic masterpieces spanning three centuries. The winter season opened with the Irish playwright Richard Brainsley Sheridan’s play of 1775, The Rivals, fit both for laughs and overcoming the pending winter blues.

Though often performed in the Southwest as an homage to its locale, the challenge of simultaneously entertaining the audience and painting complex details in the web of elaborate relationships created by Sheridan hasn’t changed.  The 18th century play is a comedy of manners about the intricate love relationships of the wealthy, set one summer in bourgeoisie Bath.

Mrs Malaprop is fixed on marrying off her niece, Lydia Languish, to Captain Jack Absolute, with the blessing of Sir Anthony Absolute. But the highly capricious Lydia, full of romantic ideas, is resolute on marrying a poor man and giving up her fortune and inheritance. One soon learns she is already in love with Captain Absolute under the disguise of destitute Beverley. Complications arise when Captain Jack’s father and Lydia’s guardian Mrs Malaprop plot for Captain Jack to marry Lydia and he, although happy, is overwhelmed with the daunting challenge of overcoming his lies before marrying the woman of his dreams.


Mrs Malaprops’ hilarious character of always accentuating the wrong words  notwithstanding does a brilliant job of painting the comic vanity and artificiality of the ‘superior’ in a not-that-long-and-fully-gone patriarchy.

hr-julie-legrand-as-mrs-malaprop-in-the-rivals-photo-by-mark-douetThe other young couple in focus, Lydia Languish’s friend Julia and her fervent and highly neurotic Faulkland, continuously shaken by fits of jealousy, ground the play with a reminder of the ever-present traps of passionate relationships.

Lucy Briggs-Owen shines in her lead role of the erratic Lydia, causing uproar and commotion in the audience with every gesture and poshly pronounced line. Portraying an 18th century spoilt young woman’s wealthy character and at the same time evoking the ‘selfie’ egocentric times we live in deserve much applause for this shining star. Lily Donovan, who plays the apparently innocent and highly manipulative servant Lucy is also worth a mention, and it’s no surprise she recently won the Peter O’Toole prize.

Dominic Hill’s production of The Rivals rises to the challenge and matches it with precision, deciding against too much modern experimentation. Rather, Hill chooses to present the audience with a classic head-on, thus proving that Sheridan still holds true as ever. With the minimal décor opting less for imagery and openness and more for giving full view to the artificiality of characters, The Rivals is a production that will make you laugh and subconsciously think of known vanities.

The Rivals continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, October 1. For more info and to book tickets, visit

Photos: Mark Douet