The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have filed our reviews of several comedies from the year 2000 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
A Busy Day - Dolly West's Kitchen - The Guardsman - The Lady in the Van - Peggy For You - The Seven Year Itch
Theatre Spring 2000
Much has been made in recent years of the rediscovery of Fanny Burney, championed far and wide as a neglected female genius in a dramatic world whose evolution has usually been marked by its overbearing masculinity. Now's your chance to experience what the fuss is all about.
Let me tell you straight off that it is not a great play - but it is great fun. A Busy Day is a romp through the polite society of 18th/19th century London - "the most prosperous city in Europe". Situational in fine British tradition, its laughs derive from pitting the old money and the old fashions against the new.
The characters are certainly worthy of any modern soap opera, led by the Watts, a gauchely nouveau riche family of jolly Cockneys whose daughter Peggy has returned from India as a lady and an heiress to a vast fortune. Cue the aristocratic wolves of assorted lords and baronets and earl's daughters, who come sniffing for a good marriage match and a quick fix for their, ahem, mortgage problem.
There are some truly wonderful turns of phrase and more than a few genuine laughs but, dragged down by inexcusably leaden direction and disconnected performances, the play only kicks in during the final scenes.
The large cast has been described tactfully elsewhere as being of 'mixed talent' - broadly speaking that means you can split them into two groups: the one that can act this sort of stuff and those that inexplicably can't. The older generation, including Stephanie Beacham as a lofty Lady Wilhemina Tylney, fall into the former category and provide much entertainment. The rest - with the sole exception of the incurably talented Sara Crowe (as the dizzy The Hon. Miss Percival) - wallow disappointingly in the latter slot with little hope of redemption.
Burney lived a long life, from 1752 to 1840 and her date of writing A Busy Day -1800 - must be of great resonance to today's audience, particularly since it is poised not only at the cusp of two great centuries but also at the transition between two social orders as prosperity started to filter rapidly through the nation's consumer classes.
The play is also of interest because, as my colleague assures me, there were no great playwrights in Britain in the long years between Sheridan and Wilde - simply because anyone with talent was off reaping the new-found commercial rewards of authoring a novel in instalments instead.
Despite the obstacles, Burney's play is a mini-masterpiece if only for the wicked mirror which she holds up to the self-obsessed society of her day, which works just fine for our own - and could so easily have been written yesterday.
West's Kitchen Old Vic Theatre
This is a remarkable thing - a really good play about nice people. The characters in Frank McGuinness' new play have flaws, disagree and even fight. But they are controlled by an overriding love, not just romantic or familial (though both are present), but good will that enables them to survive anything. And along the way, we have an entertaining and soul-cleansing time.
A production of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, the play is set in neutral Ireland in World War Two. Dolly West uncharacteristically not only attended university but went off to Italy to run a restaurant, but now the war has returned her to her family. Her sister stayed home and married an honourable but mousy local man; her mother has reached the age where proprieties don't inhibit her; and her priggish brother is in the Irish Home Guard, ready to fight off the Germans or the English with equal fervor.
Add in an English soldier who was once Dolly's lover, a couple of American GIs, one of whom is a flaming queen, and an outcast local girl, and mix freely.
Brother hates the English and Americans, but love found in an unexpected place softens him, helping him grow into a better human being. Dolly and her ex spar uncomfortably. Sister is tempted to stray. Mother watches everything, and manipulates things behind the scenes, with quiet amusement. The soldiers go off to war and return, all traumatised in one way or another. There are bitter quarrels and shocking revelations.
And, through it all, the one thing that is absolutely clearest to us is that these people love each other - or, at the very least, wish each other well. This conservative Catholic family absorbs the homosexual into it because he is clearly a nice guy. At her lowest, the straying sister acknowledges that her husband is the best man she's known, and honours him for that. No fight is so final that its participants can't make up.
And through it all, there is a clear sense of underlying happiness. It's not by accident that the play is set in a kitchen. In this woman's realm, where the men are occasional guests, the women of the family are allowed to be honest, bawdy and funny in uninhibited ways, and great chunks of the play are delightfully comic.
In the large cast, skilfully and sensitively directed by Patrick Mason, Donna Dent as Dolly gives the play a strong moral centre, and Pauline Flanagan as the mother implicitly blesses everything and everyone with her wise approval.
There is an underlying seriousness to the play. There's something about the almost criminal luxury of neutrality, and the way the minor troubles of the Irish characters pale before the fears and traumas of the soldiers. There may even be (as there almost always is with Irish plays) a buried allegory about Irish history.
But mainly there is an old-fashioned well-constructed comedy-drama about how people of good will survive (if not quite triumph over) all obstacles to their happiness.
And it is very, very satisfying and entertaining to watch.
The Guardsman Albery Theatre Autumn 2000
It is funny how these things happen. On two consecutive nights I saw The Seven Year Itch (see my review on this page), which was a sad example of a director with no sensitivity to the play or its genre, and this stylish revival of Ferenc Molnar's romantic comedy, which is a model of exactly the opposite. Theatre students could learn a year's worth about directing by just seeing both shows.
More importantly, those of us who are not theatre students can be assured of the traditional Great Night Out at this blend of classy production, stylish direction and bravura playing, that declares its confident authority in the first seconds and never loses it.
In Frank Marcus' smooth adaptation of Molnar's classic, Greta Scacchi and Michael Pennington play a married couple of grand actors, the sort for whom every utterance is a performance, and who are likely to be distracted from an intensely emotional scene so she can remind him that she's a year younger than he said, or so they can debate whether his Cyrano or her Camille got the better reviews.
Convinced she is prone to stray, he tests her by sending anonymous flowers and then disguising himself as an officer to woo her. At first, to his secret delight, she fends off this would-be lover, but when she seems to fall, he finds himself becoming insanely jealous of himself. When he returns in his own form to accuse her, she so artfully denies the encounter that he is almost convinced it never happened.
Director Janet Suzman, herself an actress in the grand style (she could play the wife magnificently), has exactly the right sense of the heightened reality and not-quite-parodic grand style required for this cream pastry of a play, and guides her cast to a clear enjoyment of its acting opportunities.
In the showier role, Michael Pennington gets to play both jealous husband and suave lover, turning each into a marvellous send-up of the type. (Among other great touches, the husband is so eager to make the guardsman a plummy role that he keeps slipping into an Inspector Clouseau-type accent). And as every plot twist threatens the disguise, we see the panicky man behind the mask trying to sustain it. Sensitively, Pennington and Suzman also make it clear that on one level the husband knows he's being ridiculous, giving the fluff a necessary emotional anchor.
Director Suzman also knows that farce requires something steady to bounce off, and so Greta Scacchi balances Pennington's broad antics with quiet underplaying, stealing scene after scene by seeming to do nothing, calmly and beautifully posing in a series of elegant gowns (by Charles Cusick Smith, who also provided the lush decor). But in fact there is a constant twinkle in her eye that sustains right to the end of the play the ambiguity of whether her character was tempted to stray or in fact saw through the masquerade from the start.
Strong support is provided by Nicholas Grace as an ironically bemused friend, and by Georgina Hale, giving a wicked impersonation of Ruth Gordon in the role of Scacchi's adopted mother. Even the tiny role of the maid (Laura Macaulay) awed by her glamourous employers adds to the comedy, a testament to director Suzman's absolute command of the play's stylishness.
This isn't Pinter or Beckett or Sophocles. It is high comedy played to perfection. And that's a lot rarer.
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The Lady In The Van Queen's Theatre Spring 2000
In the early 1970s a homeless woman parked her van in Alan Bennett's front garden and Bennett, with one eccentric's compassion for another, allowed her to stay for 15 years. After her death, he wrote a thin book which was really as much about himself as about her. And now he has adapted it into a play which, despite the presence of Dame Maggie Smith (and yes, she's marvellous, of course), is really an extraordinarily revealing piece of autobiography.
Bennett is portrayed by two actors. Kevin McNally is the writer and the interior man, narrating the piece but not interacting with anyone but Nicholas Farrell as the external Alan, who copes with the complexities Miss Shepherd brings into his life. Both have been directed by Nicholas Hytner to copy the real Alan's familiar posture, mannerisms and voice, contributing to the play's strong sense of reality. McNally in particular is uncanny. I am about to write a sentence I never thought I'd have occasion for: he comes very close to upstaging Maggie Smith.
The two Alans bicker like an old married couple, and in the process bring out the author's wonderment at just what in him was fed by Miss Shepherd. It had something to do, we come to understand, with his mother's ageing and dying during this period, and his need to compensate for real or imagined guilt at having neglected her. He also saw in Miss Shepherd a distorted reflection of his own eccentricities, particularly when he discovered that her madness was brought on in part by a conflict between artistic and moral impulses.
If I'm making this sound heavy, let me assert that it isn't. Bennett always views himself with an ironic eye - when the public Alan explodes in indignation at a social worker who is treating Miss Shepherd as just another case, the inner Alan comments dryly that of course he never actually said that aloud. Later, in a moment of inappropriate sexual temptation, he wonders what Joe Orton would have done..
And, of course, there is Maggie Smith. Buried under layers of ragged clothes and a flop-eared cap (programme credit to Oxfam and other charity shops), she's almost unrecognisable until that glorious voice gives forth. Only she, with her ability to riffle through an entire musical scale in the course of a sentence, could give such tragicomic energy to Miss Shepherd's confusion when the social worker brings her too many new coats to choose from: "My wardrobe is driving me ma-a-a-a-d!" And she can make it seem absolutely reasonable that, when under the delusion that she is about to become Prime Minister, Miss Shepherd should fret over where to park the van in Downing Street.
But Smith also finds the human being under all Miss Shepherd's eccentricities, chillingly offering brief glimpses of the religious torment hidden even from the onstage Alans, and beautifully evoking a memory of her pre-madness life in one extended speech.
The fact remains that, despite her deserved star billing, Smith's role is really an extended cameo. The play's emotional centre is in Alan Bennett's brave and touching self-portrait.
Peggy For You Comedy Theatre, Spring 2000
Peggy Ramsay was the near-legendary authors' agent who represented virtually every important British playwright of the past 50 years, from Joe Orton to David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn to Edward Bond. Motherly, inspiring, bullying and seductive, she probably shaped the modern British theatre more than anyone else, with the possible exception of Cameron Mackintosh.
Now Alan Plater, one of her clients, has written this comic valentine to her, a fictional day-in-the-life that captures all her genius and deviltry, and provides Maureen Lipman with the opportunity for a delightful and magnetic performance.
We watch Peggy deal with four clients (fictional composites, Plater assures us, though London has been playing Guess Who). A beginner (Tom Espiner) has submitted a terrible play in which she sees sparks of talent, so he is brought under her wing and under her spell. A commercial success (Crispin Redman) is warned against complacency and comfort.
A third who feels unappreciated (Richard Platt) tries to break with Peggy, but is conned into laying a carpet for her even as he fires her. And by phone comes word that a fourth has killed himself, news that Peggy takes with shocking coldness, since he had written himself out and was already dead to her. There's also a long-suffering secretary (Selina Griffiths) whom Peggy, as was her wont, persists in calling by the name of her predecessor.
They're all fine, though Robin Lefevre has clearly directed them all as straight men and feeds to the star.
Whether Maureen Lipman's Peggy is an accurate impersonation is of interest only to those who knew her (and they disagree). It is a confident, fascinating star turn.
Striding elegantly among the piles of scripts that litter her office floor, or perching anywhere convenient, shoes off and feet up, she captures the energy and authority of a woman who is always confident she's right, even if she's not sure what the question is.
On the phone she can confuse Alan Plater with Alan Ayckbourn (as she repeatedly did in life), just because they're both from up north somewhere, or casually lose Redman's character a six-figure movie deal (while he stands there in shock) because she disapproves of the producer.
She can be eloquent and insightful on Shakespeare in one breath, and obscene and blind to the feelings of her listeners in the next. "You're impossible," says one in exasperation. "Who wants to be possible?" she replies airily.
Clearly the point of the play is to capture the essence of Peggy's hold on her mesmerised clients, and it succeeds marvellously. Lipman's Peggy comes across as someone you wish earnestly you had known, though it would surely have been exhausting.
Even her darker sides, the bullying of clients and the interference in their private lives (She was convinced that marriage and happiness destroyed talent) are put in the context of a sincere and profound dedication -- to the theatre and to her writers' potential for excellence.
If you've heard about Peggy Ramsay before, here's an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. If you haven't, Peggy For You is still a fascinating peep behind the curtain, and a warm and lovely comedy with a great performance at its centre.
The Seven Year Itch Queen's Theatre Autumn 2000
Why do directors with no affinity for a play or sensitivity to its genre insist on directing it? Why are actors totally wrong for a role cast in it? And why are other actors, quite competent in themselves, directed to be far worse than they are capable of being?
These are some of the questions that may pass through your head as you sit through the long and startlingly unfunny revival of George Axelrod's 1952 Broadway hit currently in London as a showcase for Daryl Hannah.
Axelrod's comedy is of a sort Broadway used to churn out by the dozen - a light romance with a hint of naughtiness, and a vehicle for an inspired clown. A mousy middle-aged husband, suddenly single while his family is on vacation, frightens himself with fantasies of amorous adventures, then panics even more when a lovely new neighbour seems approachable, and then is ridden with guilt about the adventure.
Think about that summary for a second. The first thing you'll notice is that the play is the man's - in fact, a good three quarters of it is made up of his monologues of fantasy or panic. The second is that the whole joke lies in his mousiness and the fact that he's not equipped for adventure - he has to spend most of the play in a dither of frustration, panic or guilt. And the third is that the girl is essentially a prop, a minor role that exists only to stimulate his comic reactions.
Rolf Saxon (who? see the problem already? he's not the star) is a solid journeyman actor and a leading man type. So immediately the premise of the whole play is gone: it is not inherently comic for this man to imagine an affair. He's also a serious actor and not a natural clown. He works hard at acting panic and frustration, but it's all acting and all forced; you don't believe the character for a minute, and you don't get the inspired lunacy that Tom Ewell brought to the role 50 years ago (or that someone like, say, Gene Wilder would give it).
And he is not at all helped by director Michael Radford (who? a film director making his first attempt at a stage play), who has no sense of physical comedy or comic pacing. But Radford's real crime is in his direction of Daryl Hannah.
She, as we know, is a skilled actress with some comic flair. But you couldn't tell it from this. As everyone knows, Marilyn Monroe was in the 1955 film, and Hannah has wrongheadedly been directed to do a Monroe imitation throughout - the hair, the breathy voice, the pouting. (The play takes place on the man's birthday, and at one horrible moment I thought she was going to sing Happy Birthday Mr President.)
The problem is that it's a lousy Monroe imitation, with a much narrower vocal and emotive range than even Monroe was capable of. So we don't get the character Axelrod wrote - an innocently sexy 22-year-old - and we don't get the character Hannah might have been able to play, and we don't even get the character Monroe was able to play. What we get is a dull, characterless, one-note, lifeless blank.
At its best this revival was misconceived from the start, by making it a vehicle for the actress and thinking of the man's role as support. But the error was compounded by one directorial error after another.
Daryl Hannah is lovely to look at, but she isn't even on stage all that much. So there really is no reason whatever to see this show.
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Review - A Busy Day - Lyric 2000 Review - Dolly West's Kitchen - Old Vic 2000 Review - The Guardsman - Albery 2000 Review - The Lady in the Van - Queen's 2000 Review - Peggy For You - Comedy 2000 Review - The Seven Year Itch - Queen's 2000