Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals. Photograph: Simon Annand
Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals. Photograph: Simon Annand

Mushy and predictable, with loosely held together plot lines, a slew of stereotypes and Jennifer Aniston with plenty of ‘issues’ – the romantic comedy is an oft-derided genre.

Struggling rom-com scriptwriters could do worse than head to the Arcola Theatre for Selina Cadell’s revival of Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, for a master class in frolicsome repartee.

The Rivals, set in the fashionable Bath, has all the genre’s regular features – the staid best friend in the sub-plot romance, furious fathers and mooning lovers.

But Sheridan’s characters are so artfully drawn, so full of eccentricity and eloquence, that Dalston’s packed out playhouse sits in thrall throughout this (admittedly rather long) comedy of manners.

Lydia Languish (Jennifer Rainsford) has read too many of the newly popular trashy novels. She has bad-boy syndrome and in a big way. From her frilly boudoir she dreams of a starry- lit elopement with her pauper ensign Beverley and thrills of penniless passion.

Despite the efforts of her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) – whose muddled meanings coined the word ‘malapropism’ – and her orders to “illiterate him” from her memory, Lydia wants to live like common people.

But the discovery that Beverley is no churchmouse but in fact the extremely eligible, or as her aunt has it ‘illegible’, Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) renders Lydia inconsolable. The banality of the words ‘consent’ and ‘vicar’ send her crashing to her chaise-longue with distress.

Two others rivals, the country buffoon Bob Acres and Irish gent Sir Lucius O’ Trigger (Adrian McLoughlin), also compete for Miss Languish’s affections.

Matters are complicated further when the unfortunate O’Trigger is tricked by the not-so-simple Lucy (Hannah Stokely) into courting the antique Mrs Malaprop instead of her niece.

The burgeoning romance between the neurotic Faulkland, played to perfection by a long-faced Adam Jackson-Smith, and his long-suffering Julia (Justine Mitchell) has the audience in stitches.

West End heavyweight Nicholas Le Provost also gives a barnstorming performance as the apoplectic Captain Absolute.

Cadell’s masterstroke is in ramping up the camp. Each gesture is slightly overdone until the characters gently mock their own pretensions.

But rather than this serving to send up the early comedy, the tongue-in-cheek exaggerations improve the joke – in tune with the eighteenth-century predilection for lampoon and satire.

Unlike the characters, Emma Bailey’s modest set commands minimal attention but nevertheless its subtlety – as hand-drawn clouds are winched comically across the stage – is no less refined.

The Rivals at the Arcola is the pineapple of wit – book now to avoid despisement!

The Rivals is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 15 November 

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