I have long believed that The Admirable Crichton would be even funnier with the addition of a performer reciting the stage directions; J.M. Barrie was simply unable to confine his apophthegms to the actual lines of the play. In the absence of such a bonus, Michael Rudman opens this year's Chichester season with a more than respectable production of Barrie's second-greatest hit.
True, the press-night audience engaged in its not unfamiliar trait of applauding scene changes, although those executed here – nicely choreographed and revealing, for Acts Two and Three, a remarkable desert-island design by Johan Engels based on the paintings of Henri Rousseau – fully merit acknowledgement. Curiously, no similar applause was forthcoming on the initial entrances of either Ian McShane or the venerable Michael Denison, but after all they hardly need congratulating for turning up. Rudman also turns to choreography, with impressive results, to convey the stilted atmosphere of Lord Loam's monthly teas for the servants which, far from breaking down social barriers, give rise to awkwardness and embarrassment all round.
The character of Crichton – the butler shipwrecked with the Lasenby family, who shatters his lordship's childishly egalitarian notions by demonstrating that some kind of social order inevitably asserts itself – is deceptively delicately balanced; actors in the role generally seem much more at ease either in deferential Mayfair mode than as an exotic chieftain or vice versa. McShane's vice is palpably versa; although he pays lip-service to a reluctance over his new status, his performance exudes almost as great an air of liberation as that of Victoria Scarborough's Lady Mary, celebrating her rebirth as the island huntress Polly. In the opening and closing acts, Crichton's professional unobtrusiveness is belied more by the actor's own presence than by any discreet Jeevesian control. Nevertheless, he gives an otherwise measured and consistently enjoyable rendering.
Michael Denison is, of course, completely at home as Lord Loam in Mayfair, and seems to relish the chance to escape his now-mandatory starched collars on the island as little more than an accordion-playing mascot; Barbara Jefford makes a perfect Act Four grande dame. It is Scarborough, however, who most completely and feelingly unites the two distinct personae which her character is called upon to display.
The play is an astute choice for Chichester, taking as it does the conventions of drawing-room comedy only to shatter and ultimately rebuild them subtly out of kilter. If the subject under examination seems dated in an allegedly classless age, it is not yet sterile either on its face or as a wider political metaphor, and neither the piece nor Rudman's production ever threatens dullness.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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