PATRICK MARMION reviews Peggy For You

Love letter to an icon who ruled the theatrical world: PATRICK MARMION reviews Peggy For You

Peggy For You (Hampstead Theatre)

Rating:

Verdict: Theatrical nostalgia

Comedy royalty is in residence at the Hampstead Theatre this Christmas, where Tamsin Greig is topping the billing in a revival of an old Alan Plater play directed by Richard ‘I don’t believe it’ Wilson.

Greig is best known from Friday Night Dinner — and no one will ever forget Wilson’s comic miserabilist, Victor Meldrew, from TV’s One Foot In The Grave.

Greig plays legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsay, a colourful and notoriously indiscreet character who was equally revered and feared in the world of theatre.

From the 1950s till her death in 1991, she represented some of Britain’s top playwrights, with clients including Christopher ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ Hampton, David Hare and Alan Ayckbourn.

Curtain call: Tamsin Greig and Jos Vantyler

Plater was another of her charges, and his love letter to her was originally performed by Maureen Lipman, before transferring to the West End in 1999. 

Set in the late 1960s, the action plays out over the course of one day in Ramsay’s old sock of an office, up a steep flight of stairs on St Martin’s Lane. 

Some of the fun comes from trying to identify the writers under discussion — in particular, boozy leftist ‘David’ who she has to bail out of police custody. Could it be Hare? The two Alans — one in Scarborough (Ayckbourn) and the other in Hull (Plater) — are easier.

The greater pleasure, though, is the way Ramsay toys with those who pass under her bespectacled gaze, and the one-liners they elicit. Rarefied literary discussions are pungently seasoned, too. ‘A play,’ she airily declares, ‘is a rasping fart in the face of destiny’.

Some of Plater’s stories have the ring of historical truth — especially her denial that she told Laurence Olivier to f*** off. ‘It was Peter Hall!’ she protests.

But the biggest delight is Peggy herself: in Greig’s hands batty, brusque, flirtatious and whimsical.

She reclines in her leather office chair, bare feet propped on a desk heaped with manuscripts. She’s the kind of woman who makes her secretary roll her a joint, so she can find out why it’s illegal.

We don’t get so much of what Plater calls ‘imperious’, ‘intimidating’ or ‘prejudiced’ — although at one point she cheekily sniffs that Northerners ‘were all born in a huff’.

The effect is to make her less combative and more likeable. But it weakens the dramatic impact of Plater’s serious denouement.

Nonetheless, I suspect Ramsay would be satisfied with Greig’s evasive, inscrutable manner. I also loved the way she toys with Josh Finan’s Simon, an aspiring young writer who strays into her office.

She is lasciviously enamoured of Jos Vantyler’s Philip, a Savile Row spiv who’s hit the big time; and obsequiously charming with Danusia Samal, as the secretary who fields her calls.

Only Trevor Fox as Henry, an outspoken Geordie writer, gets to stand up to her — and as a result, he’s much the best of the supporting characters.

He comes to tell her he has had enough — only to find himself fitting a carpet and discovering that Margaret Ramsay Ltd is a case of Hotel California: you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Best seat in the house

East is East 

My theatre of the year is Birmingham Rep. And if you’re wondering why, check out Iqbal Khan’s 25th anniversary production of Ayub Khan Din’s play about an Anglo-Pakistani family in 1970s Salford, a co-production with the National Theatre.

ntathome.com, £7.99 to rent

Craig revels in being a stage baddie 

Cinderella (Mayflower Theatre, Southampton)

Rating:

Verdict: Fabulous, darling

On Strictly Come Dancing, the contestants can’t answer back when Craig Revel Horwood delivers his waspish judgments. But in pantoland, everyone gets their say — and the audience at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton enthusiastically tell him exactly what they think of his character, Baroness Hardup, each time she sashays on stage.

The boos rain down but it’s all good-humoured as he, er, revels in playing the baddie. He happily hams up the evils in this family-friendly show, written by Alan McHugh. It has enough near-the-knuckle jokes to entertain the adults, while the fart gags that pepper the script keep the wee ones happy.

Thom Southerland’s production fizzes with energy, much helped by an amiable and energetic Buttons (Richard Cadell, appearing with Sooty) who oversees a lot of audience participation and keeps the show rattling along.

The boos rain down but it’s all good-humoured as he, er, revels in playing the baddie. He happily hams up the evils in this family-friendly show, written by Alan McHugh

Mr Revel Horwood’s name being above the title means, of course, that this panto has a lot of dance numbers, but he can also belt out songs, too. There are several set pieces using the talented ensemble. Georgia Carr as Cinderella and Will Richardson as Prince Charming sing sweetly together.

Suzie Chard and Catherine Morris, as Cinderella’s stepsisters Claudia and Tess (one of several Strictly jokes in the show), don’t quite hit the spot, not least because the Ugly Sisters really do have to be obviously blokes for the set-up to work.

Debbie McGee as the Fairy Godmother, however, is sparkly and sweet (and a good sport in the stage business), while the transformation scene is a genuine wow moment, with dancing pumpkins and a flying carriage.

It adds up to great fun and, as Mr Revel Horwood might say, it’s ‘Fab-u-lous!’

Until January 2 (mayflower.org.uk)

Veronica Lee

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