Admittedly, the first ten or fifteen minutes are exposition central, so the play does not get a blistering start out of the blocks, but once it hits its stride these performers wring every laugh possible out of every line. In particular, the scene in which country bumpkin Bob Acres unintentionally drives Faulkland to distraction with tales of how happy Julia has been while away from him is sublime. Performed by two actors with impeccable comic timing - Keiron Self as the cuddly, over-enthusiastic Acres and Tony Gardner as the tortured, earnest and slightly haughty Faulkland - these two roles could not be more perfectly cast, and the actors clearly have a ball performing together.
In fact, the over-arching sense of fun is something for which director Peter Hall must be praised. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this production is that the breaking of the fourth wall established in the asides is actually extended to other parts of the play, and by giving the actors licence to riff off the audience reaction, you feel that you are seeing a very unique performance - and for a play that's almost 250 years old, that's quite some feat.
Of course, much of the pre-publicity has concentrated on the fact that Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith (as Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs Malaprop) are appearing on stage together for the first time since the televisual phenomenon To The Manor Born, but in fact, Bowles here has much more rapport with his on-stage son Tam Williams who plays Captain Absolute as a clever jack-the-lad that you can't help but love. Bowles's performance is bordering on the bizarre but in the most wonderful way - the part could easily be panto, but instead he underplays it, giving Absolute a real sense of menace one moment, and a jokey lightness the next.
Hall's The Rivals is a perfect storm of three huge positives: casting, direction and performance, all of which are brilliantly pitched. Classy and very, very funny.