I don’t usually write theatre reviews, in fact this is a first. The Tobacco Factory is a small theatre situated in an old tobacco warehouse in the Bedminster area of south Bristol. It first opened in the late 90s, and has developed a well deserved reputation for presenting exciting and coherent interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays – they usually produce two a year. Now they are expanding their repertoire to include more varied material. Recently we have seen Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. Last night it was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.
The School for Scandal is a classic comedy of manners telling a story of thwarted love, and painting a picture of a society corrupted by gossip, scandal, gambling and drink. The characters are larger than life – caricatures in many cases: Lady Sneerwell in this production is at times close to a pantomime dame with her flowing satin and evil plans; Snake, the journalist, and Mrs Candour are equally wicked and outrageous. These, along with Sir Benjamin Backbite, form the School for Scandal.
This performance opens with Backbite reciting Sheridan’s original prologue, adapted to include modern allusions to Twitter and social media as well as the traditional references to print journalism. It’s very funny, ending with Backbite taking a selfie with members of the audience.
Credit, a young banker, is prominent in a scene in which the rapaciousness of the interest he charges is used to satirise the burgeoning capitalism of the time, with obvious contemporary relevance. Charles Surface is in debt to Credit, who assists Sir Oliver Surface, uncle of Charles and Joseph, in testing the character of the two brothers. Charles has the worse reputation – as a drunk and a gambler – but Sir Oliver wants to find out for himself before settling his money on either.
Sir Peter Teazle – married to a woman half his age, is convinced that Joseph is the better of the two brothers. Lady Teazle – young and foolish – joins the School for Scandal, and begins to be seduced by Joseph who is lodging with the Teazles. The two plots – Sir Oliver’s testing of the young brothers, and Lady Teazle’s dabbling in society come together in a typically farcical denouement involving disguise and deception. Lovers and cuckolded husbands hide in cupboards, as in a Brian Rix farce, or something from Alan Ayckbourn.
The School for Scandal has all the elements of comedy – political and social satire, and sheer physical farce. All are really well exploited in this production: the moment when Joseph attempts to disguise Lady Teazle’s silk stocking as a necktie, then finds it draped across his head by his amused brother perhaps epitomises the way this company consistently manages to bring wit and invention to their performances.