The Rivals is the only play that I can remember studying at school, though I cannot remember what that studying taught me. I'm sure that we did lots of Shakespeare too but I cannot recall which ones.
Depressingly, almost the only clear image I have from five years of studying Eng. Lit. (I passed!) was sitting by the window in Mrs Vickery's class identifying malapropisms in The Rivals, a task made easier for me by a previous owner of my text book who had underlined them all.
If that tender memory was not enough to make me see the show then staging it at the Arcola was.
I had planned to work in London that day and to walk to the Arcola, it's a pleasant 45 minute stroll, but work took me to Reading instead and I had to leave promptly to catch the bus to Reading Station, train to Paddington, Hammersmith and City line to King’s Cross St. Pancras, Victoria line to Highbury and Islington and, finally, the London Overground to Dalston Kingsland. It all worked well and I was in the comfortable Arcola Bar in good time for a bottle of red beer and a roll that had humus in it.
Getting drinks was bit of a problem all evening as whenever I asked for a Red they unaccountably reached for the wine and I had to remind then that I drink beer.
The Arcola's new policy of allocated seating (still not sure about that one) meant that I could take my time over my food and drink and did not have to worry about the lengthening queues for the theatre. The policy also meant that I was in the corner of the stage in seat A2 (there was no A1, which confused me) as I was late booking and had to choose between a more central position or a closer one. The front row always wins that contest. At £18 the seat was a bargain.
Some of the cast were milling about the stage area as we went in and they talked to some of us. This was a little weird as the conversation I had was with the actor not the character, we talked about the theatre and we agreed that Visitors was excellent.
The Rivals was a hoot from the beginning mainly thanks to the silly characters though the twisting plot helped too.
The rivals in love were very unusual. In one relationship they were the same man assuming two identities, in another the rivalry was a fiction created by one of the couple to tease and test the other, one man's rival was his inner devil that could not accept that his lady really loved him and another relationship that should have led to rivalry did not because the man's letters were being diverted to another woman. That may sound a bit complicated, and it was a little, but it did not take long to get in to the characters and their relationships.
The production included lots of audience interaction, always a good thing (even in the blood-strewn Sweeney Todd), and we were asked to hold on to cloaks when no pegs were available, to hide books, to help one character back on his feet after a failed dance move and the group of young women next to me were hit upon by one of the sillier men.
There were many other nice touches too, like the music during some of the (limited) scene changes, the stage hand who frankly lost interest in spreading leaves on the stage and the actor playing two parts who had to throw himself out of the room, which he did noisily.
But, as I said earlier, it was the characters that made most of the comedy and there were many of them and they were all good. The ones that made me laugh the most (an entirely personal and subjective view) were Lydia Languish a wealthy teenage heiress in love with Ensign Beverley/Jack Absolute (the same man), Sir Anthony Absolute a wealthy baronet and Jack's father, and Faulkland a friend of Jack Absolute. All three had me stitches throughout due to their ridiculous posturing and the brilliant faux-overacting by their players.
Their thoughts and actions were not that out of place today and that helped the humour greatly as that helped us to appreciate and relate to what they were feeling.
The Rivals was a very funny play delivered intelligently and lovingly. It was sold out for a good reason and the loud cheering during the curtain calls confirmed this.