I first encountered Amy Rosenthal in 1999 via a student production of her Henna Night, written whilst on David Edgar's University of Birmingham playwriting course. Her authorial voice struck me at the time as sensitive but labouring overmuch to be grave, less concerned with the originality of what she said than its earnestness. It is a great relief to report that John Doyle's production of Rosenthal's Sitting Pretty at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton is – although the two plays were written at the same time – almost entirely devoid of any such weaknesses.
Part of this may be down to the presence of actors with a finer ear and a greater skill for dialogue than students. The likes of Maureen Lipman (who is Rosenthal's mother), Aviva Jane Carlin, Brian Protheroe and the younger but underrated Clare Wilkie, when faced with a line that has the potential to plonk with sententiousness such as "Time may be a cracking anaesthetist but a great healer it ain't", will nine times out of ten defuse this danger by delivering it in a natural, even offhand way.
Rosenthal also seems readier to leaven the proceedings with the affectionate sardonicism often found in her father Jack's writing. Her play takes a serious look at matters such as ageing, self-definition, co-dependency and the like – as undistinguished fiftysomething typist Nancy (Carlin) is saved from post-redundancy depression by becoming a nude life model to Protheroe's art class, and her sister Nina (Lipman) finds herself in turn deprived of her role as support to Nancy – but the perspective on matters is more often wry than it is po-faced. It is a fine balance: one can see, for instance, that Lipman could easily have played up the comic possibilities of her brisk, innocently selfish character rather than bravely trying to hold it in equipoise with Nina's unsympathetic brittleness; similarly, Carlin has a middle-aged winsomeness that charms us over many of the potentially awkward moments for Nancy.
At the preview I saw, Rosenthal seemed too obvious in the last ten minutes of the play in bringing matters to a head and then tying them up – there are, so to speak, big neon signs saying "CLIMAX" and "RESOLUTION" hanging over the proceedings – but this co-production with the Theatre of Comedy Company confirms that she is likely soon to transcend the easy references to her as "daughter of...".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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