Without getting all academic on its ass, and despite what the programme may tell you, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play is not a ‘Restoration Comedy’ being about 115 years too late for the demise of Oliver Cromwell and the coronation of Charles II but it is an endlessly lively ‘comedy of manners’ which relies on instantly-familiar stock characters and farcical situations and which can trace its lineage through Wilde and Wodehouse to the Carry On Films and pantomime itself.

The Rivals is set in Bath where ‘society’ was less stratified than in Georgian London and could almost be ‘Carry On Up The Pump Room’ as the gentry, soldiery and farmers pursue their female quarry with all the subtlety and artifice of Sid James chasing Barbara Windsor.

Director Selina Cadell’s masterstroke is to indulge some modernisation in costumes – all the women’s skirts are made from bedspreads, what’s that about? – and by not requiring everyone to ponce about in a powdered wig, but to treat the piece as though it were Italian Commedia dell’Arte from two centuries earlier and in which the posturing stage style was celebrated and the ‘fourth wall’ ignored so the characters interact informally with the audience.   Working with expert Didi Hopkins from the National Theatre, all the cast have been schooled in Commedia stage business and badinage which provide the energy which bowls this three-hour five-act piece along at mostly a terrific rate.

Do you need to know the plot?  Obsessed by trashy graphic novels (they were the 18th century equivalent of Sky Atlantic) Lydia Languish wants to be romanced by a prince masquerading as a pauper so her soldier beau Jack Absolute pretends to be a lowly sailor while his pompous father brokers an arranged marriage … with the same girl.   At the same time, rustic clod Bob Acres has set his cloth cap at what he believes to be the same lady, but turns out to be her elderly and decidedly dotty aunt, Mrs Malaprop.  It does take over an hour for the basics of the plot to be outlined, and there’s a soggy period in the second act before the grand denouement but the proceedings are enlivened by a fine cast and some genuinely superb performances.

Jenny Rainsford strums Lydia’s flouncing irrationality like a highly-strung instrument, rolling her eyes and windmilling her arms just short of the strait jacket in a hugely entertaining and original interpretation.  Sir Anthony Absolute’s bombast is more conventional but captured with perfect timing by the wonderful Nicholas le Prevost and as his soldier son Jack, Iain Batchelor has a fine time of it driving the plot turns with ingenuity and impressive vocal agility.

Bearing all before her, though and billowing forth like a three-masted schooner in full sail comes Gemma Jones as the outrageous Mrs Malaprop.  Wild of eye and unsteady of gait, she looks and sounds startlingly like Shirley Williams.  When Mrs Malaprop spouts her famously mispronounced and frankly bonkers views on education and the role of women, it’s even more like Question Time.

With laughs.