For reasons which elude me, E.F. Benson is among the most discussed authors on one British arm of the Internet. Furthermore, the programme for this stage adaptation of his novel Mapp And Lucia includes plugs for two separate Benson societies. His tales of genteel malice between middle-class women of a certain age are diverting enough, to be sure, but such fervour is mystifying.
The sense of Edwardian throwback is heightened by the fact that, although John van Druten's play was produced on Broadway in 1948, this is its professional British première. We are in a world in which a retired major can wear spats with impunity, the local vicar's idea of humour is affecting a Scottish accent, and imputations of effeminacy can be politely hurled at Lucia's toupéed friend Georgie Pillson by folk who, had the word "homophobia" been coined in 1912, would have thought that perhaps it was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Life crises are more trivial even than those of Neighbours: pitched battles are fought over the site of a garden fête, and social death is occasioned when the chillingly named Hanging Committee declines to exhibit one's watercolours in the local art show.
This production's main selling point is the stage reunion of Angela Thorne and John Wells, who were so much more lovable as Margaret and Denis Thatcher in Anyone For Denis? than the real things. (John Nettleton, who plays Major Flint, is also a Denis veteran.) Thorne brings to the role of Lucia the Thatcherian iron will, but tempered here with an impish sense of mischief and a mortal fear of being unmasked as the poseuse she is; passionately reciting Dante in the original, she sighs, "Nel mezzo del camin' di nostra vita! How beautiful! I wish I knew what it meant!"
John Wells as Georgie Pillson is simply John Wells in a ginger wig: bumbling through the action in his affable drawl, he delivers precisely the performance we have come to expect. It is the kind of part Wells can play in his sleep, and indeed has somnambulated through for the past decade or so. As Miss Mapp, the village grande dame in danger of being supplanted by the newcomer Lucia, Marcia Warren at least has two notes, which she plays masterfully. This smiler with the knife never drops her welded-on simper, but when bested her voice takes on a comically strangulated tone as words of concession try to make it through her teeth; at one point she has so much difficulty giving ground that she dances a kind of twist to get the words out.
Director Alan Strachan wisely refuses to camp things up, realising that the show's target audience is interested not in knowing self-parody but in phoney nostalgia. In style no less than in content, this is the stage incarnation of John Major's longing for the mythical England of cricket on the green, warm beer and (the ingredient he strangely overlooked) a petty cold war conducted in well-appointed drawing-rooms. One hopes the Prime Minister has seen the play; only a stage version of Mrs Dale's Diary could better content him.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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