“Oons!” is probably my favourite archaic expletive. There’s something about this further contraction of “Zounds!” (from “God’s wounds”) that sounds irresistibly absurd. And there are plenty of oons in The School for Scandal. To all intents and purposes, it is The Oon Show.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s genius in this 1777 comedy is in knowing just when to suspend the polished periodicity of his characters’ more accustomed speech and insert an oon or two; just when to balance the smug decorousness of the scandalmongers by giving free rein to the reactions of their victims.
When the disguised Sir Oliver Surface (Ian McNiece, with just a hint of his recent run of Winston Churchill portrayals) comes face to face with the reality behind each of his nephews, his “out-loud” politeness contrasts with his blunter asides. The same thing occurs when Sir Peter Teazle learns of the stratagems in which his wife is entangled, although James Laurenson undersells the normally more persistent choleric vein in Sir Peter’s character. And, in Jamie Lloyd’s buoyant production, when the sententious hypocrite Joseph Surface’s lies begin to unravel, Edward Bennett runs out of words altogether and canters balletically across the stage trying to keep his deceivees hidden from each other.
Lloyd does not unleash a family-size can of rollickingness here as in his recent National Theatre production of She Stoops to Conquer, nor is his direction as diffidently formal as in his Old Vic Duchess of Malfi. He finds the Sheridanesque balance, exemplified in the gossiping scenes of the titular “school” itself. This circle of bitchery may be presided over by Serena Evans’s Lady Sneerwell, but its star practitioner is Maggie Steed’s Mrs Candour, who primly decries the spreading of salacious rumours even as she peddles them herself. As Charles, the dissolute but honest Surface brother, Nigel Harman conveys some of the delight in naughtiness that he displayed more villainously as Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical.
Bath’s Peter Hall-less summer season continues with Terry Johnson’s revival of his Freud/Dalí fantasia Hysteria and Adrian Noble directing Tim Pigott-Smith as Prospero; Lloyd, though, has kicked it off with the verve that was lacking in the theatre’s 2010 production of Sheridan’s The Rivals. It seems that what is required may well be due attention to oons.