Review – The Rivals, Southwark

Friday 22 January 2010

A curse upon unreserved seating! A pox upon thine playhouse! The rivalry for seats bits of bench at the otherwise wonderful Southwark Playhouse‘s production of The Rivals last night proved more intense than anything the Whingers will ever see on a stage.

Were there a lot of Germans in the audience on Tuesday night? Ersatz beach towels in the form of scarves and coats were draped across swathes of seating. “I’m reserving five seats!” explained one woman, channelling Mrs Malaprop’s hauteur, but presumably she had lived here long enough to lose her accent and therefore break the habit.

The auditorium filled to capacity and then some more people arrived. The staff implored us: “Could you squeeze up a bit?” Er, no, we couldn’t actually. Even with Andrew’s newly gym-honed carcass and Phil’s buttocks clenched as tight as a fringe theatre’s budget there really wasn’t room for another. A gentleman was pushed onto the end of our row nonetheless and quite how he perched on one buttock for the not-far-short-of three hours we shall never know. I suppose we could have asked.

Yes, it was uncomfortable at the Playhouse which must surely be in some kind of droll competition with the Menier to see who can seat the most people in the least comfort. We support Mister Shenton’s recent whinging on the matter.  And as we may have mentioned, the problem with Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s play is that it is very long. There would be an uproar if livestock were treated like this. The EU really should step in.

Fortunately director Jessica Swale has assembled a terrific ensemble cast whose perkiness and enthusiasm make the evening almost tolerable.

We’ll have to be honest and admit that we struggled during the first half. Sheridan’s convoluted plotting and overdone (as it seems to us) flowery language failed to overcome the heat (yes!) and discomfort of the auditorium. Had we bothered to open the programme* we might have benefited from the synopsis kindly provided but we didn’t so we struggled.

However, an interval drink served by the lovely bar staff perked the Whingers up and numbed their buttocks so that during the second half they were revived and as alert as they ever are.

Robin Soans and Celia Imrie in The Rivals Harry Hadden-Paton (a godson of the real Fergie, the Duchess of York, as everyone knows) is superb as the dashing Captain Jack Absolute and there’s s a star-making comic turn from Christopher Logan who gives a hilarious performance with his comedic west country accent (we do hope it’s not his own; Andrew insists he’s Irish) as Bob Acres. Celia Imrie (our main reason for attending, if we’re honest) is everything you would want Celia Imrie to be and brings a rather affecting vulnerability to Mrs Malaprop.

And on that subject: were we the only ones to find ourselves frequently puzzled  as to which word Mrs Malaprop was aiming for?  We got “the very pineapple of politeness” but are still scratching our heads over “female punctuation forbids me to say more”.

What else? Well, there’s also a beautifully simple set by Cara Newman, some musical interludes culminating in a nod to Adam Ant and some amusing business involving the audience.

And only one disappointment: now, we respect the budgetary constraints within which the Southwark Playhouse operates, but surely the production  could have stretched to a wig for Mrs Malaprop – sticking a few pink feathers in her hair was a bit of a disappointment. Where’s Richard Mawbey when you need him? Doesn’t have ever have wig sales where the fringe can pick up seconds and slightly damaged rugs for a song?

As it turns out, the Gay-O-Meter – still warm from its exertions at Six Degrees and Little Dog – could have been left at home as this play was unfashionably heterosexual. Only a reference to a “gay captain” and and a character called Fag produced a modest flutter from the Whingers’ over-sensitive gizmo.

The biggest laugh of the evening though was in the bar when the Whingers’ wonderful companion Dame Angela of Audience Club scrutinised Phil’s visage and asked, “Have you had Botox?” What could she mean? Was it her own malapropism? Like a few of Mrs Malaprop’s lines the Whingers couldn’t work out what the original word could be. Bovril? Or had she scrambled a whole sentence and meant “You do talk bollox”?


* Full marks to the Playhouse for imaginatively producing a rather clever programme in the shape of an 18th century newspaper “The Bath Chronicle” and for including a synopsis of the confusing plot.


Cavil on Rating

This new rating system could mean the death of the Whingers. Not literally. Well, possibly literally. Tempers have frayed, sulks entered into. This review has been sitting around for AGES due to a disagreement over the rating. Andrew insisted it was a four; Phil a three. Neither Whinger has budged an inch for three days. It’s a face-off. Andrew – ever the diplomat – suggested having two ratings – one each. Phil dismissed this on the grounds that the rating system was “confusing enough already” with the instruction: “just concede for once”. Don’t be surprised if the new rating system quietly disappears.


21 Responses to “Review – The Rivals, Southwark”

  1. Cat Says:

    Gueses for what punctuation is replacing… perogative? proclivities?

    Off to see this tonight. Regretting the wooly jumper decision already..!

  2. Caroline Says:

    Last Saturday’s matinee was just as packed and uncomfortable – I have never seen Southwark Playhouse so full. Great business for the theatre but agony for the audience – the seat depth is hellishly inadequate, likewise the elbow room – there is none. I loved the set and think I kept up with the plot but the cramped seating meant I was struggling to concentrate even before the interval.

  3. betsy Says:

    250ml glass? 175ml glass? 125ml glass?

  4. Job Says:


  5. Peter Schutterlin Says:


  6. CrediBately Says:

    Uncomfortable seating:

    Spare a thought for the hapless production team who have to endure these bum-numbing conditions through twelve hour days surrounded by the detritus of the production period – half-finished pizzas,unconsumed drinks,unwanted parts of the set.

    Do elderly knights such as Sir Trevor have special thrones built to place them above such indignities?

  7. J.A. Says:

    Thrones or, more likely, commodes

  8. I think i drew a long straw when i saw this on Thursday, the seating was roomy enough for me to, dare i say it? ‘Lounge’! Although the rattling over-head was a little distracting (trains or cars over the bridge i presume!) I thought Ella Smith deserved a mention though, her Julia was touching and perfectly suited to counter the lamenting jealous poet who was Faulkland;
    I thought the cast did a fabulous job of maintaining the ‘ooomph’ throughout the whole thing!
    Ooh, and David Tennant was in the front row, that might have contributed to the fabulousness of my evening 🙂

  9. A Clown Says:

    I was quite amused when at one point during the show, Fag asked me if there was any room for him to sit down when quite clearly not even Keira Knightley’s thigh could have squeezed on, so he then proceeded to sit on my lap and do his bit of the scene from there.
    And Andrew was right, it’s a 4!

  10. J Wilkinson Says:

    At least you managed to get in to see the play. It’s sold out but we queued for returns for the Saturday matinee 23 January. Even that was stressful! There was one person at the box office, who disappeared 15 minutes before the show was due to start. Where did he go? To tear tickets for the huge queue pushing to get into the theatre. He was on his own in both roles – i.e. box office and ticket-tearer. And not surprisingly the result was chaos. We felt very sorry for those waiting at the box office who had booked and were baffled by what was going on. What a shame – since normally going to the Southwark Playhouse is a great experience…

  11. Nick Says:

    Just in from this show. Really enjoyed the performance but couldn’t agree more about the WRETCHED overselling. My friend and I were among six people who arrived after all the seats were clearly full. I am one of those people who spent 3 hours on one buttock (see above). In short, great performance but horrible seats…and surely the bar could be lit in a way to make it a little more appealing?? I won’t be rushing back.

  12. nina Says:

    Agreed. I won’t be going back in a hurry which will be a real shame for me if I miss something good and for the venue which I appreciate is running things on a shoestring and needs to sell all the tickets it can. There must be a balance to be struck between chaotic and cheerful and chaotic and completely unacceptable?

  13. ms.marple investigates Says:

    Re. Unreserved seating – a real bummer. The Young Vic is another criminal, attempting to force us to ‘queue’ in a freezing foyer with people trailing into the street (we refused but many didn’t), and then the usual ‘could you move/squeeze up/sit on each other’s faces to make room for late-comers – NO! Ban this ridiculous practice now!

    • Caroline Says:

      Most of my favourite theatres are offenders in this respect: the Orange Tree, Ticycle, Young Vic and Southwark Playhouse as mentioned; Royal Court Theatre Upstairs; Soho Theatre, Bush… yet once you are inside, they have the best ambience, so I endure it. I have tried writing to some of these theatres but those in charge are completely intractable on this point. And whilst shows continue to sell out and people queue for returns, managers have no incentive to change. What would it take, I wonder?

  14. Nick Says:

    Oh I agree about the Young Vic and having to queue nearly an hour before the show starts to get a decent seat. What was most disconcerting about the Southwark Playhouse was that when we went into the auditorium there wasn’t a single front of house person to be seen. I wondered if they were trying to recreate an 18th Century level of discomfort.

  15. Max Says:

    Unreserved seating is an unmitigated horror.

    Contrary to what the offending theatres may think, there is nothing undemocratic about knowing where you are going to be seating and everything fascist about making an audience queue for up to an hour before the show and then treat them like cattle inside.

    The worst thing of all is that at ALL these theatres, some seats are indeed reserved with big white labels: for friends of the management who often do not turn up on time.

    I don’t say this lightly: I’m not going back to the Young Vic because of this. I am sure they will disregard this complaint if they hear about it. Fine by me: they’ve just lost one of their mailing list audience.

  16. Ellie Jones Says:

    Hi there. I’m the Artistic Director at Southwark Playhouse and I’m really sorry that some of you have not been having the best time with our seats. We set capacity at 2 bums per bench so we’re not deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable or forcing extra numbers into the space. I only wish we could afford to get new seats – but as I’m sure most of you know (unlike most of the other venues you mention barring the Menier) we’re not Arts Council funded so money’s always tight – at the moment – high on my maintenance list are fixing the roof and getting new lighting in the bar (I agree it’s a bit dark at the moment but all of the lights are being used in the show and the flourescents just look ugly). If any of you could help us raise the money to afford new seats I’d be truly grateful but I’m afraid that in the meantime I have to hope we keep having sell-out shows so that our revenue increases enough to be able to save some of it to put towards the future comfort of our audience.

    Oh, and for the poor person who came on Saturday and there was no-one to tear tickets – my apologies. Again, due to lack of money, apart from our box-office (which on the night the whingers came was me)and bar staff we can’t pay anyone else to work Front of House so our ticket tearers are volunteers and on Saturday it seems they didn’t turn up – I hope that won’t happen again but if any of you fancy giving up a night to volunteer for us please contact us on and let us know! You get to see the show for free and a free drink at the interval!

  17. Caroline Says:

    I think Ellie’s is a very brave and positive response. I’m happy to offer a small donation and hope there are other posters who can do the same, but more importantly, are there people out there with the skills/knowledge/contacts to help with the fund-raising, obviously much-needed and from which we would all benefit?

  18. Cat Says:

    To Ellie,

    Have you had any quotes for what it would cost to replace the seating? Would it be possible to launch a ‘sponsor a seat’ appeal?

  19. Nick Says:

    Thanks to Ellie for the insight into just how financially tight things are in fringe theatre. That makes me wonder why the tickets for this very entertaining show were so cheap. There were ‘early bird’ tickets from £8 which is incredible for such a popular play with a TV name and many well-known actors. I’d expect to pay around £20 (for a guaranteed seat!). Wouldn’t that be the easiest way to raise funds?

  20. Thanks to the Whingers for such a lovely review. I produced ‘The Rivals’ (for Red Handed Theatre Company and Primavera), and we set the ticket prices in consultation with Southwark Playhouse. In answer to the question about cheaper tickets, I think it’s quite important that when a producer hires a theatre like Southwark Playhouse, they don’t suddenly increase ticket prices beyond the theatre’s usual levels. Offering £8 and £13 tickets for ‘The Rivals’ not only meant that our earlier previews sold well (before reviews came out), but also that the theatre’s loyal audience members could come, rather than feeling ‘priced out’ by this particular production. The only thing that’s a real shame is that we couldn’t extend the run at Southwark once it sold out so early. We’re still crossing our fingers for a transfer somewhere else though..!

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