REVIEW: Tilted Wig Productions in The School For Scandal, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday **

Alex Phelps’s Joseph Surface, left, and Joseph Marcell’s Sir Peter Teazle in Tilted Wig’s The School For Scandal. Picture: Anthony Robling

WHEN The School For Scandal premiered at Drury Lane in 1777, the audience laughed so loudly that a passer-by thought the building was collapsing.

Roll forward to 2024, when Sean Aydon’s 1950 setting of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners fails to bring down the house. “They’re finding themselves funnier than we are,” came one barb of Dorothy Parker bite over the interval drinks.

It had looked so promising, from the stellar casting of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air butler Joseph Marcell as the lordly Sir Peter Teazle to the programme design in the style of the Town & Country high society fashion magazine. Anthony Tittle, editor in chief, Henry Tattle, editor at large, Ted Talk, production director; you get the picture. Never judge a play by its programme cover, however.

“We felt that what our audiences needed more than anything was an evening of pure fun,” reckoned Aydon in the wake of the pandemic gloom. “An evening of aural and visual pleasure without a moment of darkness…”

Darkness is indeed absent from Sarah Beaton’s set and costume designs. A plethora of peach drapes, three peach ceiling lamps, and blue-and-white checkerboard floor tiles rather than regulation black and white, set the tone, but that mood board is muted. Peach is not peachy but pallid.

Out go 18th century wigs and ruffles that “can feel like a barrier”, reasons Aydon, but equally “it didn’t feel right to set it in the modern day as the world of the play has very different rules to our own, particularly with regards to marriage as a financial agreement”.

Wanting to retain a sense of Sheridan’s gossip-driven milieu being one of wealth, style and the height of fashion, Aydon settled on the mid-20th century as a “great place aesthetically”, whose vibrant colours and evocative textures could be appreciated “while knowing we are not in our 21st century world”.

For all the witty detail, such as the three phones on a row of plinths that emphasise the ever-bubbling babble of society chit-chat, the new setting remains a barrier to the highly mannered 18th century comedy being funny.

No feeling is more deflating on a night at the theatre than a comedy failing to spark, when laughs are as muted as those peach drapes. Audiences have to connect, to bond, to care, to warm to characters, but The School For Scandal is all surface – and not only in having three characters by that surname – and surface is not enough.

Snappy dialogue matters more than a snappy dress sense. Compare and contrast with Richard Bean’s revitalisation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Italian comedy The Servant Of Two Masters, relocated to 1963 Brighton as One Man, Two Guvnors with a scabrous new script.

It did everything that Aydon craves for Tilted Wig’s The School For Scandal: “Theatre is important for many reasons: it can challenge us, provoke us, shock us, teach us to question the world around us. But it can also provide deep and unadulterated joy.” True for that Bean feast of comic chaos, but not here.

Sheridan’s names for his “outrageous characters”, from Snake to Weasel, Backbite to Careless, Lady Sneerwell to Mrs Candour, promise more than they deliver in this slow-moving account of Sir Peter Teazle (Marcell) believing that his young wife, the country maid Lady Teazle (Lydea Perkins), is playing away from home, as Lady Sneerwell’s scandalmongers spread the word. Not true, but if he thinks she is, why not give it a go, she decides.

Characters come and go, come and go again, the words pile up, the laughs don’t, as Aydon’s wish for us to “celebrate the joy of being alive” is unfulfilled, for all the striving of Marcell’s Sir Peter, Garmon Rhys’s Charles Surface/Benjamin Backbite and Emily Jane McNeill’s Lady Sneerwell.  

There is one exception to this frustrating experience. Having delighted York audiences previously in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s Twelfth Night and York Theatre Royal & Tilted Wig’s Around The World In 80 Days, Alex Phelps parades his comic craft once more with delicious timing, peacock elegance and physical  comedy chops worthy of a Chaplin, Wisdom or Wall, both as the manipulative, hypocritical Joseph Surface and in a tipsy, scene-stealing cameo as Bumper.

An Act Two scene with Phelps’s Joseph, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, involving a chaise longue, a screen and a cupboard, is the one moment of “unadulterated joy”. Elsewhere, alas, Sheridan’s top of the fops comedy feels dated, and it hasn’t dated well.

Tilted Wig in tandem with Malvern Theatres and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, present The School For Scandal, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday; 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or