Frederick Lonsdale, we are informed, was "amongst the most successful dramatists that ever lived." In commercial terms this may be true: in the 1920s and 1930s his plays and musicals were almost guaranteed hits. As far as theatrical skill goes, however, the foregoing remark is blatant apologism for Peter Hall's pointless revival of his 1927 play On Approval.
Lonsdale found it inconceivable to create protagonists who were neither titled nor wealthy. Here we are presented with a shallow and selfish duke obliged to woo a pickle heiress for her money, and a well-off widow, acerbic by nature, who invites her genteelly fawning suitor to her Scottish country house for a month to test his compatibility as a prospective spouse. It will spoil no-one's enjoyment to reveal that in such a (yawn) isolated location, the two amorous parties (yawn) discover the truth about their beloveds' temperaments, break off their affairs and resolve (yawn) to mend the duke and the widow by yoking them to each other.
In other words, the plot runs on barely-electrified rails. Any delight must then derive either from the eloquence of the script or from the nature of this particular production. Unfortunately, Lonsdale relies entirely upon an epigrammatical style for his humour; and more often than not it is numbingly apparent that a well-turned sentence and a polished delivery do not in themselves make an epigram. His rhetorical menu consists largely of fortune cookies which are stale, empty or both.
Hall lavishes far more attention on the play than it deserves (hell, a second consecutive reading is more than it deserves). As the script aims at Cowardian witticisms but misses the bar by a good foot and a half, so the performances strive for period poise modulated only by period languor. As the unconcerned aristocratic booby, Martin Jarvis hits the combination spot on, coolly forgiving his companions for bridling at his incessant inanities. Anna Carteret and Simon Ward likewise do commendable service as the widow Wislack and the timidly besotted Richard. Only Louise Lombard sits awkwardly in the company, oddly for one whose popular success is rooted in the same period through her appearances in the televlsion drama series The House Of Eliott. She shows herself an able and even captivating actress, but unwilling or unable to play the idiom as her comrades do; it is unusual to criticise an actor for not being artificial enough, but this is the case as regards Lombard's performance.
Above all, one wonders time and again why On Approval has been revived at all. The mere act of dramatic archaeology is not sufficient to merit respect or attention; the fragment unearthed must be of sufficient intrinsic interest. All that this production shows us is that theatrical dinosaurs once roamed the earth, and non-carnivorous dinosaurs at that.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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