The Rivals

The life of a director on the amateur stage is not that far different from the professionals, except they have more people dedicated to every job and a cast who rehearse every day.  The decisions and the agonies are much the same, as indeed is the obsession – for that’s where it starts.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s The Rivals is a play I’ve wanted to direct for many years, possibly since seeing it at the Royal Exchange in 1976, in which the iconic role of Mrs Malaprop was played by Patricia Routledge and the cast included such luminaries as Lindsay Duncan, Trevor Peacock, James Maxwell, Tom Courtenay and Enn Reitel, among others.

Apart from the linguistic gymnastics, Mrs M’s infamous solecisms and the farcical arc of restoration comedy, the play offers so many possibilities to an amateur company – starting with the fact that, like Shakespeare, Sheridan is long since out of copyright so the script can be cut and amended at will, and the show recorded for posterity.

Thus is was that I pitched to the committee of the Kelvedon Players and spent many months thinking through how I visualised the play being translated to the stage in the compact and intimate surroundings of Kelvedon Institute.


The first inclination was to keep it simple, short and slick, majoring on the play’s virtues by entertaining the audience throughout.  This could be achieved by cutting the wordy excesses of the script, performing the play against black curtains rather than a constructed set, using the auditorium, and relying on period costume to set the tone and era.

The natural corollary of this approach is to engage with the audience, taking advantage of the many asides to break the fourth wall and share the joke.  The audience is not merely a passive observer of the proceedings but an active participant – albeit not quite in the same way as the KP’s annual panto, for example.

Even the finest verbal dexterity needs to be trimmed, and this play is certainly no exception.  Faulkland in particular waffles on at length to justify his romantic dithering, which, if quoted in full would lose audience sympathy.  There’s nothing Faulkland needs more than slapping around the chops with a wet herring!

With these principles in mind, I did a lot of advance preparation, to wit:

  • Cut the script and had it printed
  • Documented the characters and audition speeches
  • Ditto characters by scene
  • Costumes
  • Props & furnishings
  • Music & sound
  • Nice touches (eg. An easel to record progress through the show)
  • ….and more besides.

This included a visit to see The Revenger’s Tragedy, which helped in visualising the final scene on Kings Mead Fields – including lighting and use of dry ice.


This took longer than expected, though the results were quite gratifying in the end.  While I had a read-through early in January, auditions were slightly delayed because of performances of the panto, Camelot.

Some roles proved relatively easy to cast over two days in early February.  These included the majesterial Mrs Malaprop, played by the majesterial Jo Austin, Heidi Hamber to play the younger romantic Lydia Languish, and Tom Campe (with whom I acted in an abortive show in Colchester) as hero Captain Jack Absolute.  Michael Howard, fresh from the panto, did a fine job reading for several roles, but was eventually cast as the difficult role of the dithering Faulkland, in which he excels.  Sue Ellen is filling in for the small roles of maid and servant.

This allowed time for schmoozing, though several ‘bankers’ (not actually bankers but those I expected to perform with relish) withdrew and the number of actors available, particularly men, appeared to be well short of target.  Doing what I had to, I pulled in favours and advertised in several locations.

These roles took a few weeks to fill, and involved encouragement to coax a few actors who had not appeared in a while, but they are to a man and woman quite excellent:  Ellie Kent-Dyson as Julia, Russell Winsor as Sir Anthony Absolute, Michael Horne as Sir Lucius O’Trigger and James Oakley, a member of the Tollesbury Players, as Bob Acres.

Since I decided to play Thomas the Coachman myself, in spite of my leg cast, this left only Acres’s manservant David and “boy” to fill, both of which were offered to members of the junior KPs.

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