“The School for Scandal” at Cambridge Arts Theatre 

Tom Shortland in Cambridgeshire
18 April 2024 

The School for Scandal is a Restoration comedy about a perfectly innocent woman who is suspected of having an affair. A pragmatist, she realizes that there will be a scandal whether this rumour is based in reality or not, so she decides to make it a reality by engaging in an affair anyway. 

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1777 (just two years after The Rivals),The School for Scandal purportedly made its audience laugh so loudly during the opening run that on one night a passer-by thought the building was collapsing. I doubt if anybody had that impression from this production but that is not to say that the company Tilted Wig don’t score impressively on the laughter stakes.  

The original version of the script has been edited only minorly, cutting problematic jokes that don’t come out of their original context, so that all the main beloved strands of the play are intact. It takes a little patience to get through some exposition in the first half, but by the interval this investment in explaining the structure certainly pays off. 

Sarah Beaton’s design leavens some of the heavier content, with a light set that prioritises colour and elegance, and costumes inspired by 1950s fashion. You’d be easily reminded of the pastels and bright colours of the National Theatre’s Much Ado about Nothing (2022), except the bright opulence quickly wears off as you realize that the set is somewhat static and essentially unchanging. It should be said of course that this is a touring production that is travelling widely and presumably to venues with different configurations.  

But the action is also disappointingly static in the first half. The actors’ obvious talents as physical comedians are criminally underused, and yet the scenes seem overchoreographed. It is as if the actors have been given so many instructions that they are constantly asking: “Am I standing in the right place now?” instead of reacting to the broad sweep of the drama. 

You may recognise Alex Phelps (who plays Joseph Surface) from Tilted Wig’s 2023 tour of Around the World in Eighty Days in which he played Fogg. His truly impressive playfulness and comic athleticism does wonders for the play as a whole. He and Garmon Rhys (playing Charles Surface) bounce off one another wonderfully, with Rhys excelling in playful absurdity. Their cartoonish performances and Stephen Moynihan’s stylized choreography are a great fit for the artful excess of Sheridan’s characters. 

Joseph Marcell leads the cast expertly as Sir Peter Teazle, and his co-star in the upcoming Channel 4 series Queenie, Ayesha Griffiths, is consistently impressive and resourceful as Maria and hilarious as Weasel. It’s the individual standout performance (or twin performance) that make this production. But I left worrying that there seemed to be something missing in the delicate chemistry between the characters as written.