Gielgud Theatre¸ London W1
Opened 2 July, 2004

Actress Imogen Stubbs’ first play is likely to get a rough ride from reviewers. That’s a pity, as it doesn’t deserve it. Well, not all of it.  At its best, Stubbs’ story of a company of women actors performing makeshift shows across the country during World War 2 has a big-hearted, artless charm.  It’s when it tries to be artFUL that the problems creep in. And, well, it does try to be artful pretty often.

The story is inspired by a real-life troupe, but Stubbs changes the names a little (the Osiris company becomes the Artemis company) and invents the story.  Company leader Hetty Oak is, as her name suggests, strong and English, but also unexpectedly fiery about doing her bit for the morale of the war effort.  We see the company struggle through years with little money or resources, ever ramshackle but heroically plucky.

The main role of Hetty is very Juliet Stevenson, and she inhabits it with her usual intelligence and passion. The other characters are pretty much all stereotypes: the bitch, the eccentric, the cheeky Cockney, the token man etc.  The script contains a number of smart theatrical observations, as one would expect from a thesp of Stubbs’ calibre.  She even works in a concealed gag about her husband, director Trevor Nunn.

The trouble is that Stubbs feels the need to put in profundities, motifs, correspondences and all that stuff.  And my, but they stick out. It’s like watching a schoolchild bouncing up and down, wanting to be chosen by Miss.  I spent the second act writing notes about what was going to happen long before it did: the plot strands of love, respect, death... the lot. But it proved more blatant than even I feared.

There are some fine performances, albeit usually to type: Patsy Palmer as a sort of female Dick Van Dyke, and Kate O’Mara, who’s never quite stopped playing her Dynasty role ever since.  But the sad truth is that Stubbs tries far too hard... and goes on too long: three hours of this is just excessive.  At times the play hits exactly the heartwarming notes it aims for, but not often enough to drown out the thuds.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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