Lettice and Lovage
Paul Johnson | 09 Sep 2011 16:41pm
Peter Shaffer says that all his work explores “the conflict between two different kinds of right” – between creative vitality and strict adherence to fact. In both Amadeus and Equus, for example, two men, representing visionary passion on the one hand and mediocrity and sterility on the other, battle for dominance. In Lettice and Lovage Shaffer moves his exploration into the realm of comedy. Here it is two women, one a vibrant eccentric and the other a rigid bureaucrat, who exemplify the opposing philosophies. Lettice Douffet is a tour guide at one of the country’s least distinguished stately homes – “the dullest house in England”. A theatrical romantic, she begins to embellish her lectures on the house’s historical past with dramatic inventions, enhancing the interest shown by visiting tourists and, incidentally, the ‘tokens of appreciation’ which she subtly solicits. Enter Lotte Schoen, an inspector from Lettice’s employer, the Preservation Trust, a stickler for historical accuracy. Outraged by Lettice’s flights of fancy she summons her to the Trust’s headquarters and summarily dismisses her. However, during this interview Lotte gradually falls under Lettice’s spell and, on a subsequent visit to Lettice’s flat, the two women discover common ground in a shared revulsion for the loss of standards in society. An unlikely friendship develops as they forge an alliance against the dreariness of modern life, adopting Lettice’s mantra of “enlarge, enliven and enlighten”. Lettice’s dramatic flair awakens in Lotte a passion for the romance of history and by the final act they are regularly acting out famous trials and deaths. Their re-creation of the execution of Charles I unfortunately results in an accidental injury to Lotte, leading to a mistaken charge of attempted murder. Through the intervention of Lettice’s defence lawyer, however, the charge is dropped and the pair happily resume their extraordinary alliance. The staging of this play presents a severe challenge to any amateur company demanding, as it does, the creation of three distinctly different settings. Designer Mike Ashman and his construction team responded imaginatively and successfully, given the constraints of the Hayes Village Hall. The initial representation of the stately home with suitably austere paneling was effective, even if a staircase with fifteen steps could only be partially represented. Lotte’s office at the Presentation Trust was an ingenious and appropriate adaptation, but it was in the second half that the transformation to Lettice’s basement flat was most attractively accomplished. A window realistically revealed the pavement above and the steps giving a good impression of the descent to the basement area. The furnishings of the room were redolent of Lettice’s personality and theatricality, full of memorabilia, props and weapons (used in the historical re-enactments) including two imposing throne-like chairs. The lighting throughout was at a suitable level with good coverage and Elizabethan music appropriately enhanced the action. The role of Lettice, created by Shaffer for Maggie Smith, for whom it was a huge success in London and on Broadway, represents a tour-de-force for any actress brave enough to undertake it, and it is greatly to Pat Thompson’s credit that she carried it off with assurance. The play demands that the character’s flamboyant dimensions appear from the very start. Bored with the tedious narrative she was required to repeat as a tour guide, she became a dramatic story-teller with enthusiastic panache, progressing from slight embellishments to full-blown inventions in four successive variations, which amounted in effect to a demanding monologue. In a marathon performance during which she never left the stage, she colourfully depicted Lettice’s thespian flair, passion for history and authentic-feeling eccentricity. And, later in the play, in contrast to her ebullience, she displayed touching vulnerability, sometimes giving way to tears in her despair. As Lotte Schoen, Alison Bradshaw was the perfect foil for Lettice’s character. Prim and proper, practical, conventional and officious, she handled her first appearance with great attack, her stiff body language and starchy personality nicely contrasted to Lettice’s extravagance. She gradually changed tone, posture and facial expression, as outrage became frustration, then compassion and finally capitulation to Lettice’s influence, partly due to copious drafts of Lettice’s ‘quaff’, a concoction of mead, vodka and lovage, the cumulative effects of which she displayed in an admirably restrained but realistic manner. Both characterisations were aided considerably by the appropriate costuming by Cynthia Hearing. Lettice was resplendent in flowing multi-coloured chiffons and especially in the blazing scarlet reproduction of Mary Queen of Scotts’ execution robe, which she dramatically revealed in her dismissal scene. In contrast, Lotte wore her severe suits and blouses rather like an official uniform. The two actresses collaborated excellently to produce an ensemble performance in which, if Lotte’s transformation seemed a little too rapid (a weakness of the script, not the acting), the bonding of the two women was ultimately made believable. Cynthia Hearing, in addition to her wardrobe duties, provided a counterbalance to Lotte’s propriety as her petrified secretary, a nicely observed cameo of a giggly, rather dim-witted young woman eager to please. And, in the final scene, David Pascoe gave a brilliantly-judged performance as the lawyer, Mr Bardolph. Initially the epitome of dry legal professionalism, conveying great physical and vocal conviction, he expertly managed his gradual transformation to the point where he was persuaded to engage hilariously in one of Lettice’s flights of fancy. His leave-taking, uncharacteristically inarticulate in his attempt to express his feelings, was extraordinarily affecting. The director’s interpretation of the text and the precision of this secure ensemble performance enabled Shaffer’s comedy to be what I am sure he intended it to be: a small rebellion against the mediocrity of the modern world, championing the imagination against resigned acceptance of the status quo. The audience was meant to enjoy getting to know these finely-drawn characters and it is surely safe to say that last Saturday, at Hayes, we did.
- : admin
- : 19/02/2011