The School for Scandal (Tilted Wig) Back

Reviewed on: 22 May 2024

The School for Scandal is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s most popular comedy, and has been entertaining audiences for nearly 250 years. This hilarious new production by Tilted Wig Productions came to Northampton’s Royal Theatre towards the end of a three-month nationwide tour.

Sheridan’s play is a comedy of manners that sends up issues such as marital relationships, gossip and money. Many of these concerns are specific to the eighteenth century – such as concerns about the falsity of the culture of politeness, or about imperial wealth – and a modern audience might not get all of the references, particularly given the briskness of the repartee. Productions can therefore either present it in the style of the eighteenth century, where the jokes are consistent with the setting but might not land, or they can attempt an updating that underlines its more timeless aspects.

This production takes the latter route, transplanting the action to a very stylised 1950s. The players are dressed in highly tailored outfits, in a bright palette of pastels and creams. The programme notes that the designer Sarah Beaton and director Seán Aydon wanted the costumes to ‘amplify the hyper nature of Sheridan’s writing’ and to emphasise that the role that the characters were playing in society. Their rank is equivalent to their Georgian originals, perhaps underlining that things don’t change that much in high society.

Eighteenth-century theatre relied on bodily expression to convey character and emotion, and this production does too. It often uses tableau to present a scene and sometimes the characters freeze for long periods. But whereas Georgian actors used melodramatic gestures, the players in this production adopt poses like shop mannequins, suggesting that there is not a lot going on under the surface.

The set was bright and simple, with three retro telephones on pedestals, which introduced a new comic dimension to the piece, bringing messages rather than via servants. There was also a couch and two stools, which were used flexibly depending on whose drawing room was being depicted. The company is fairly small, with eight players covering fifteen parts. The ‘hyper’ costumes and exaggerated characterisations distinguished the roles, although at times it wasn’t clear if it was just the same actor or a character in disguise (an ambiguity that the production plays on).

All the players have great comic chops and inhabit their roles energetically. Joseph Marcell plays Sir Peter Teazle, an older gentleman whose marriage to a younger bride is not working out the way he expected: the veteran actor brings the hauteur and comic timing from his well-known role as Geoffrey the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Lydea Perkins has two very different characters to play, the no-longer-innocent Lady Teazle and the elderly gossip Mrs Candour, whose hunched gait seems to channel Mrs Overall. Emily-Jane McNeill (who hails from Northants) steals the show as the duplicitous Lady Sneerwell, with a studied poise and a shrieking laugh that could shatter marble.

The tone throughout is upbeat and silly, although the final resolutions are suitably moving. Appropriately, it ends in a dance-off. Tilted Wig explain that they wanted to do the production four years ago but the pandemic hit: the play was similarly from a tumultuous era when people needed cheering up. This School for Scandal is indeed a tonic and I thoroughly recommend that you see it.