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The School for Scandal, Tobacco Factory, Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

The School for Scandal, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

The School for Scandal, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Pitch-perfect Sheridan satire with present-day resonance

Benjamin Whitrow (Crabtree) and Julia Hills (Lady Sneerwell)Mark Douet

Andrew Hilton’s immensely enjoyable Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of the Sheridan classic opens with a display of hilarious brio from Byron Mondahl, who steps into the intimate arena of this South Bristol venue, only half in character as he has yet to don his powdered wig, to deliver a quick fire introduction on the joys of gossip.

He is wearing salmon pink brocade and breeches and suddenly whips out a red mobile to catch up with the latest tweets, shooting a selfie of himself in front of the audience. 

This stunning and energising piece of anachronistic warm-up sets the tone for three hours plus of perfectly-pitched satire, played by an ensemble of actors who never put a foot wrong. The appearance of the phone is a neat reminder that the lust for scandal which drives the play’s plot is a perennial human appetite, not just an 18th century foible.

Hilton’s strength has always been in making the most of his texts – whether the staple Shakespeare that has established his national reputation as an outstanding director, or when he has done Chekhov or Stoppard. He captures the brilliance of Sheridan without overdoing it: the Irish-born playwright had a rare gift for dialogue and plot, and presenting this on stage requires the lightest of touch rather than an excess of comic display. Hilton allows us to enjoy the play’s skillful structure, both in the pacing within scenes and the almost musical way in which the plot twists and turns, and increasingly farcical situations lead us joyously to the play’s conclusion.

The production strikes a delicate balance between the hard edge of satirical caricature and the empathy that comes from human frailty. There are no weak links in the casting: it is indeed difficult to pick anyone out. The perverse pleasure in scandal comes in a range of shades: Fiona Sheehan (Mrs Candour) manically pours out her titbits and Byron Mondahl (pictured left) mixes camp, guile and child-like innocence in a tour-de-force act as Sir Benjamin Backbite. Their sharp tongues, as with the other gossips and schemers, mask a more deep-seated vulnerability. Only Snake – played with sinuous and reptilian panache by Paul Currier – has the strength of his entirely malevolent convictions: the rest are subject to the hypocrisy which defines a society in which appearances matter more than true personal worth. Chris Bianchi (Sir Peter Teazle) catches the ageing husband’s pathos well and his sparring with a much younger wife – played with a mixture of cunning and coyness by Daisy Whalley – catches all the archetypal nuances of marital strife.

Jack Wharrier is a very genial Charles Surface, the "libertine" with a generous heart – a man who prefers the pleasure of partying and gambling to the more perverse thrill of enjoying the misfortunes of others. In stark contrast is his duplicitous brother Joseph, played with a mixture of charm, venom and insecurity by Pappa Essiedu.

So much of the strength – and sheer pleasure – of this production comes from the playing between the actors, all of whom inhabit their respective characters with total assurance and yet resist the temptation to overshadow the others around them, even when the text puts them in the spotlight. There is tangible enjoyment in the acting, and – as in the very best of Andrew Hilton’s productions – a vitality that creates a positive feedback loop within an enclosed space that magnifies energy and emotion. There is something approaching real magic here: at the heart of the thrilling experience of first-class comedy, we can savour the intense pleasure of the communal ritual that makes theatre so potent a force in our lives.

  • The School for Scandal is at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol until 9 May
The production strikes a delicate balance between the hard edge of satirical caricature and the empathy that comes from human frailty.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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The School for Scandal Another super production from Mr Hilton, Please don't delegate any more .There can be no doubt that he is where the real magic is generated

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