Finsbury Park is no longer London theatreland's equivalent of Outer Mongolia. The spanking new Park theatre, whose main space seems to be designed to mimic the intimacy of the successful Donmar, looks to me like the real thing -- an off-West End venue which hits the sweet spot between uncomfortable grungy fringe and over-fancy suburban gin palace.
Sheridan's classic School for Scandal is the fourth 18th century comedy directed by rising star Jessica Swale, artistic director of Red Handed Theatre, following Sheridan's The Rivals and two revivals of forgotten plays, The Belle's Stratagem and The Busy Body. Swale combines an irreverent sense of fun and an ability to create a coherent style and rhythm for her productions, using music and songs and jokes with a contemporary flavour that build a bridge to the audience. In this show one character borrows a book from the audience, which turns out (of course) to be Fifty Shades of Grey.
This mixture of 18th century and modern style worked brilliantly in The Busy Body but here, though the result is always entertaining, I'm not sure that it quite hits the target. I'm no expert on Sheridan and I haven't seen The School for Scandal since I was at school in the 1960s, but it strikes me as quite a dark and serious play. This production has a lot of comic flair and business, but somehow the real pain behind the comedy doesn't quite show through. There's a balance between high comedy and low farce which sometimes seems to tilt too much towards the latter. The Brechtian musical interludes at the start and the finish by Jessica Swale and musical director Laura Forrest-Hay are performed by the cast in chorus, but might have been more audible with solo voices.
Belinda Lang gives a standout performance as Lady Sneerwell, but the duality of some of the other characters doesn't emerge quite strongly enough. The one-dimensional Sir Benjamin Backbite, played by Michael Bryher, and Mrs Candour, played by Buffy Davis, seem to work well. The problem comes with the more complex characters. Sir Peter Teazle's agonising over the behaviour of his young wife is conveyed well by Daniel Gosling, but it's not his fault that he is much too young for the role. As his wife Lady Teazle, Kirsty Besterman is a bit too knowing and stylish for 'a girl bred wholly in the country, who never knew luxury beyond one silk gown'. The loss of her moral integrity under the influence of the Sneerwell set, which she recovers at the end of the play when she is reconciled with her husband, isn't clearly defined. As Lyn Gardner points out in today's Guardian, the crucial discovery scene when her husband finds her in a compromising situation with Joseph Surface doesn't come off. Partly this is because the screen behind which she is hiding doesn't conceal her at all. As she dances around it, the scene becomes pure slapstick, and the genuine emotion of the moment -- the pain and fear she feels at being found out, and the realisation that her husband is actually a good man -- rather go missing.
Sheridan's play can't be performed today without some degree of cutting and adaptation. I'm not objecting to that. But I wonder if the approach which worked so brilliantly for the director with The Belle's Stratagem and The Busy Body pays fewer dividends with this more complex play, which is far from being a romp. That being said, it's great fun. Even if, like me, you have never been to Finsbury Park before, it's worth the trip to see this play.