Honour at the Park Theatre review ***

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Honour

Park Theatre 200, 1st October 2018

Never, ever, marry a writer. That’s the main lesson I learnt from Honour. Jessica Murray-Smith’s 2003 play, much revived, which premiered at the NT with Ellen Atkins and Corin Redgrave, tracks the break up of a 32 year marriage when literary heavyweight George falls for calculating younger woman journalist Claudia. He leaves behind bewildered wife Honor, whose successful writing career was cut short when daughter Sophie, who is pretty livid about all of this, came along.

Across its two hours or so there is no doubt that Ms Murray-Smith covers all the bases. George’s priggish self-satisfaction. The hypocritical, “mid-life crisis”, vanity that allows him to fall for Claudia despite mocking a friend who does similar. His blustering erudition. Honor’s sacrifice of career and legacy to “support” George and bring up Sophie. Her shock, bemusement, anger and acceptance of what has happened to her. The generational gap between her and Claudia who has put career ahead of relationship and sees others in the light of what they can do for her. “Some women use loyalty as a way of justifying their sacrifice of themselves”. Claudia’s manifest certainty, at least until it starts to go wrong, as it was inevitably going to do, with George. Sophie’s anger with her Dad and exasperation with her Mum, and the gap in academic success, if not emotional intelligence, between her and Claudia, her near predecessor at Cambridge. The fading of passion in marriage, the value of monogamy, the betrayal of adultery, the idea of honour in love.

Yet the whole thing is curiously bloodless, as if the characters are acting out their reactions to each other and the situation. Which of course they are. But what I mean is the dialogue itself just doesn’t always persuade. This is not because these people lack eloquence and the ability to express themselves. Quite the reverse. They are INTELLECTUALS and that is how they talk. All the time. About everything that happens. Perhaps this is exactly how people of this class and position would behave in this situation. It is hard to connect though especially when a scene is contrived to explain to us the difference between naturalism and realism in drama.

This is nothing to do with the cast however. Producers Tiny Fires have assembled a super quartet, and under director Paul Robinson, I have to think they delivered the lines exactly as intended. If anything Katie Brayben as Claudia, who shows here that she is so much more than a musical star, and Natalie Simpson as Sophie outshone even the venerables Henry Goodman and Imogen Stubbs. I have been fortunate enough to see pretty much every professional stage performance of Ms Simpson (The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, as Ophelia in the Simon Godwin Hamlet opposite Paapa Essiedu, as Cordelia in the last RSC Lear, in Melly Still’s very fine RSC Cymbeline and as Juliet in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Young Vic Measure for Measure). She is going to go a very, very long way.

Liz Cooke simple, blue set, marked with lighting strips and with a natty curl in one corner (the Park 200 has go in-the-round for this production) is intended to evoke a competitive space, a boxing ring. This is a similar conceit to that seen in Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the recent Chichester revival, also a four hander about a love triangle but, I think, far more successful, largely because the dialogue of the protagonists is riddled with uncertainty and rationality of behaviour is in short supply (Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****).

With actors of this quality on this form, and with its squarely “middle-class” concerns (why is that the elite always insists on calling itself “middle-class”?) and flavours, I think this probably deserves, and may well get, a wider audience. Just make sure you put on your best speaking voice if you go.

 

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Park Theatre review ****

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Park Theatre, 13th September 2018

Never has the truism “a hard act to follow” been more apposite than with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Jane Horrocks. Jim Cartwright wrote the part for her after he heard her extraordinary vocal mimicry in rehearsal and, after transferring stage performance to screen, this is what I guess she will be remembered for. Or maybe Bubble. In Ab Fab. Either way she is a very fine actor as her recent turn in Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court reiterated (Instructions For Correct Assembly at the Royal Court Theatre review ****).

That is not to say that there haven’t been plenty of revivals since the original in 1992. And there are probably tons of amateur singers with a decent pair of lungs who have also had a go. Jim Cartwright, as this, and maybe even more so Road, shows, has a natural dramatic gift. Maybe he hasn’t quite matched the brilliance of his first decade but his lines are just so good that is is difficult for cast and director not to entertain in his plays. Squeezing every last drop out of his stories however does require real talent such as that delivered by the likes of Lemn Sissay, Michelle Fairley, June Watson and Liz White, with director John Tiffany, in last year’s Royal Court revival of Road. (road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****). This didn’t quite scale those heights but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

The calling card of this production, from new company The Land of Green Ginger at the Park, was having LV and Mari played by real life Mother and Daughter Sally George and Rafaella Hutchinson. You will likely know Sally George from the telly but she has an illustrious stage CV as well and Ms Hutchinson, as well as following Mum onto the small screen, has singing experience. I was certainly struck by her acting as LV, particularly early on in the more vulnerable passages, but her singing mimicry, notably in the lower registers, was a little more variable. Mum however was as brassily vulgar as you like, alternately grating and sympathetic, dignity never entirely crumbling. With fine support from Kevin McMonagle as Ray Say, Shaun Prendergast as Mr Boo, Linford Johnson as Billy and, especially, Jamie-Rose Monk as Sadie, (who, remember, is allowedT no real voice), this was a very solidly directed (Tom Latter) rendition of this emotionally direct play. Jacob Hughes’s albeit very literal set continued the run of fine realisations in this space.

I would venture to suggest that this narrative of linguistically and culturally rich, but emotionally and economically deprived working class women, which is in a sense what both LV and Mari are, trying to make themselves heard above the men that prey on them, isn’t terrifically fashionable in dramatic circles right now. Playwrights seem more focussed on broader identity and global catastrophe than on class. A shame in some ways. For when it works a punch to the gut, laced with humour as hear, can be so much more memorable than a dry tap on the brain.

The End of the Pier at the Park Theatre review ****

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The End of the Pier

Park Theatre 200, 2nd August 2018

Comic gold is not universal. We all have a different take on what is funny. The casting of Les Dennis in Extras (S1 E4) as a washed up, needy TV star in a pantomime, whose young fiancee is copping off with a stagehand, was a stroke of genius by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Specifically the scene where he is literally baring his all to Gervais in the changing room is as funny as funny gets. As it turns out this was a turning point in Les’s life and career lifting him out of a dark period after a marital break-up (visible on the execrable Big Brother apparently). Ironic too that Messrs Gervais and Merchant’s own comedy oeuvres have been largely downhill since then.

Anyway it means that Jolly Les is surely the go to casting choice if you are writing and producing a play about a washed up comedian whose career comes crashing down after making a racist joke. Which is exactly what writer and director Danny Robins and Hannah Price did with The End of the Pier. More than enough to reel me and the SO in to seeing it.

The joy is that this is actually a pretty good play. Funny, insightful, well structured and with some strong performances and not just from Les. His character Bobby was part of an, unsurprisingly, Northern double act, Chalk and Cheese. From working men’s clubs through to Saturday Night TV stardom they had it all into the 1980s. Eddie Cheese, now dead, was an unrepentant racist bully but it is Bobby who ends up telling the (unheard) joke, perhaps against his better nature, which catapults their careers, just when the audience, thanks to alternative comedy, is moving on. The twist is that Bobby’s son, Michael, played by Blake Harrison, (you know Neil from The Inbetweeners), is also now a household name “observational” comedian, with a partner Jenna, (the very talented Tala Gouviea), who is a TV comedy commissioning executive and fully paid up member of the LME.

Now as I write this I can see that the set-up does all sound a bit predictable. But the way in which Mr Robins goes on to develop the set-up is anything but. The politics of comedy, (and race and class), are smartly pulled to pieces, the relationship between father and son is similarly dissected and there is a brilliantly funny ending courtesy of Nitin Ganatra, who plays Mohammed, a schoolmate of Michael who comes back to haunt him. OK so there are a couple of clunky McGuffins to facilitate some plot switchbacks, and Michael’s character turns a little too adroitly on a attitudinal sixpence towards the end, but no matter, as once it gets going this is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Danny Robins is not the only TV/radio sitcom writer to be commissioned for the Park stage but on the strength of this I bet he gets another crack at a full length play. He has an ear for dialogue and could certainly succeed with subtler fare. Mind you I have to admit that some of the funniest lines in the play are Bobby’s cringey old-skool one-liners.

Hannah Price, (who I think worked with no less than John Malkovich on his The Good Canary at the Kingston Rose last year), directs with vigour and does a pretty guide job of patching over the contrivances and James Turner’s set, which shifts from Bobby’s Blackpool flat to backstage at the studio where Michael’s show is filmed, has a real flair for detail. As an aside the designers for productions at the Park seem to me to always be very well served by those who put their sets together so a big shout out to the chippies and the rest of the team. In our performance there was a problem with the sound but the team soldiered on regardless and came up with a couple of belts and braces solutions when it mattered.

There are better plays which address the nature of comedy, Trevor Griffith’s masterful Comedians and Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny for example, but this is a very entertaining, if occasionally overly earnest, addition.

 

 

Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***

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Monogamy

Park Theatre 200, 28th June 2018

This was a curious confection. Playwright Torben Betts (there his is above) has, by all accounts, made a very creditable stab exploring the comic social realism so expertly, and prolifically, mined by his one time mentor Alan Ayckbourn. Here is another to follow the likes of Invincible and Muswell Hill (also set in a kitchen). I hadn’t seen any of his work before, other than his adaption of Chekhov’s Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, which displayed his sympathy for the Russian master.

With Janie Dee in the title role, so superb in the NT’s Follies, as Caroline, a celebrity TV chef whose “perfect” life starts to unravel, this sounded interesting. Which, in some ways, it was. The problem is that it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be or say. Nothing wrong with flipping between comedy and tragedy, this is after all, what the mighty Chekhov and all his subsequent acolytes have strived to perfect. The British middle class family, and specifically the British middle class marriage, is a perfect dramatic target and is guaranteed to put knowing bums on theatrical seats. (Remember the phrase “middle class” in this, and most other, contexts doesn’t actually mean those in the middle. It means those at the top who assuage their guilt, and give themselves room to complain about their entitled lot, by pretending they are in the middle. I should know. I am one of them).

In Monogamy though the comedy, whilst often very witty was just too broad, veering into farce. The satire was just too obvious, the targets too cliched. The tragedy too contrived. I am pretty sure this technicolour effect was what Mr Betts set out to achieve, assisted by Alistair Whatley’s direction,  but it left me a little muddled despite some satisfying individual elements.

The play opens with the effortlessly capable Caroline rehearsing in the kitchen of her house which, temporarily is doubling up as her TV show kitchen. After the show her new PA, the coked-up Amanda, very amusingly played by Genevieve Gaunt with sub-Russell Brand verbal strangles, breezes in and announces the tabloids have got pics of Caroline pouring herself out of a bar after a big night out. It is wine o’clock though and Caroline, glass in hand, starts preparing for a party to celebrate son Leo’s Cambridge graduation. Leo (Jack Archer) is brooding, indulgently left-wing, gay and looking for his parents approval/spoiling for a fight as he comes out. We discover that builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), polishing up the house for sale, is having an affair with Caroline. As if this wasn’t enough the second act sees the return of the utterly over the top husband Mike return from his round of golf, (played with blustering, red-faced, apoplectic aplomb by Patrick Ryecart), and the arrival of Sally, (an under-utilised Charlie Brooks), bent on revenge for her husband’s infidelity. And the action ratchets up from there to a blackly comic conclusion, a knife standing in for the Chekhovian gun.

So you can see. Sit-comish staples, farcical energy, a hotch-potch of targets. Mike is a banker. And a philanderer. Obviously. Caroline is a Christian. Improbably., and her faith offers no protection from the demolition of family and fame. Sally is depressed, conveyed with real pathos by Charlie Brooks, but drowned by the rest of the shenanigans. Salt of the earth type Graeme turns out to have not so hidden depths of compassion. Amanda thinks they are all w*nkers, a fair enough assessment in the circumstances though she is the very embodiment of annoying. Though it may not be her fault as, McGuffin alert, her Mum has just died. Leo and Daddy make up, sort of.

It is genuinely hard not to like much of the detail and the performances, and I for one would be happy to acquire the kitchen conjured up in James Perkins’s set, but all together it overwhelms to the point of underwhelming if you see what I mean. I am pretty sure Torben Betts will hit the theatrical jackpot (and he can write other, more serious fare). This just doesn’t quite cohere. Having said that I gather it is set to tour in 2019, after a mini-tour prior to the run at the Park, and I would certainly look out for it if it comes near you.

 

Pressure at the Park Theatre review ***

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Pressure

Park Theatre, 26th April 2018

I had high hopes for Pressure. I have said before that the Park Theatre has a knack of mounting a wide array of productions, which, on paper at least, sound interesting, though execution can be variable. If I am honest Pressure, initially, wasn’t one of them. But the reviews from previous performances in Edinburgh and Chichester and the presence as writer, and performer, of David Haig, and the Park’s always jolly atmosphere, reeled me in. When it transpired that the production was transferring to the West End, (the Ambassador’s Theatre from, in a nod to its content, the 6th June), I confess to feeling inwardly smug that I had got in early, along with the full houses which the Park has secured.

Talking of smug, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, there is a faint air of the self-satisfied about Mr Haig’s performances. Most recently I have seen him play the arrogant, borderline racist Dr Robert Smith in the Young Vic’s revival of Joe Penhall’s marvellous play Blue/Orange alongside some blokes called Daniel Kaluuya and Luke Norris who you might know. Let us hope Mr Penhall’s latest offering, Mood Music, at the Old Vic matches this. He also played the enigmatic Player in the said Old Vic’s recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both cases, and in some of his telly roles, he nails down the patronising pomposity of a certain type of middle-aged Brit expert, whilst revealing any vulnerability or desperation that might lie behind the surface.

I am sure that, outside work, he could not be more different, though his writing, the text of Pressure is intimidatingly exact in terms of directions, suggests otherwise. Regardless, what I can say is that when he gets his teeth into a character there are few more stirring sights than Mr Haig in full flow. So if I tell you that he has written a dramatic account of the real life contribution of meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, to the D Day invasion on June 6th 1944, it will likely not come as too much of a surprise. GC Stagg, on this account, was a dour, uncompromising Scot, who staked his reputation on convincing the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, here played by Malcolm Sinclair, to first hold off, and then go ahead with the invasion plans, despite apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the opinion of his breezy American counterpart Colonel Irving P Krick (Philip Cairns).

It would have made a gripping black and white film in the 1950s or even a one off TV drama today. And that, in part, is something of its problem. It is a powerful story, but, once the die is cast, it is theatrically predictable and Mr Haig presents it that way. The pressure on GC Stagg is, compounded by his wife’s troubled pregnancy. The isobars on the charts measure pressure. We see the pressure mount on Eisenhower as he makes his fateful decisions. There are no real surprises in what the characters do or say and there are times when they verge on cliche.

On the other hand Mr Haig has wisely introduced a major female role in the form of Kay Summersby, the aide-de-camp to Eisenhower. She is played with clip-vowelled exactitude by Laura Rodgers, who I admired in Rules for Living at the Rose Kingston and Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, (a play that continues to linger long in the mind). Malcolm Sinclair as Eisenhower is also impressive though I have no idea what the man himself was like, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Director John Dove has collaborated with Mr Haig before on his most famous play (and film) My Boy Jack, based on the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his son, so doesn’t mess about with Mr Haig’s story.

I appreciate that I am sounding a bit sniffy about Pressure. I don’t mean to be. It is, in its own conventional way, very effective and David Haig turns in an exemplary performance. If this sounds like your sort of thing then don’t hesitate to get down to the Ambassador’s.

 

Vincent River at the Park Theatre review ****

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Vincent River

Park Theatre, 29th March 2018

I wonder if the 2070s equivalents of the Finborough Theatre or the Orange Tree Theatre, will be lauded for their Philip Ridley revivals. Mr Ridley’s subject matter and idiom means he is a nailed on certainty to get multiple airings in today’s theatrical world. His art, his novels particularly for young adults, his screenplays, his songs and his plays, again especially those aimed at the youth and away from old fellas like me, have a vitality and urgency, and attention grabbing narrative invention, which is hard to resist.

On paper his first play The Pitchfork Disney takes your breathe away. In the flesh, as it were, it is even more extraordinary. Remember this “in yer face” work was the first of its kind and budding young playwrights everywhere still likely harbour ambitions, knowingly or unknowingly, to capture some of its essence. The Fastest Clock in the Universe, in its dissection of self-image, and Ghost From a Perfect Place, loaded up with more graphic violence, built on its foundations. The ugly themes the plays explore, and our complicity with those themes as observers, remain compelling over two decades later.

And yet there is a bit of me that thinks they might be utter sh*te even as I am watching them, the shock tactics, and their torture porn narratives, pleading with us to see meaning in all this misery. Usual conundrum: are we in some way thrilled by this transgressive violence or are we chin-stroking at what is wrong in the human condition. Compounded by the fact that Mr Ridley is soooo imaginative a writer that you can’t take your eyes off his plays, even as you clock the dissonances.

I don’t know any of the plays which followed these debuts, the Brothers Trilogy, Tender Napalm, Shivered and the later adult plays. I saw the recent staging of the six monologues that make up Angry at the Southwark Playhouse. Not good I am afraid, like a student attempt at sketching out some short “Philip Ridley” style plays and a couple of limp jokes.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival of Vincent River, Mr Ridley’s fourth adult play, written in 2000, which followed the breakthrough trilogy. Well I can concur with those criterati who say this might just be his best play. There is a violent act which lies at the heart of the play, the theme is clear and vitally important, the behaviour if the characters unpredictable, the story is in real time, there are a couple of lightly shocking interactions and, yes, some drink, drugs and swearing. Yet, importantly, we get to see and feel the impact of real life horror on two real life people uncluttered by Mr Ridley’s fantasy.

Whilst the “twist”, such as it is, is unlikely to surprise I will spare you the detail. A middle aged woman Anita is moving into a threadbare flat in Dagenham having moved from LB Hackney, (Mr Ridley’s cabbie like enthusiasm for London’s geography is on show as usual though Shoreditch has moved on a bit since then). Her son Vincent has been murdered in what transpires was a brutal homophobic attack at a disused railway station. Davey arrives. He clams to have discovered Vincent’s body whilst walking his girlfriend home. The play then explores, across a compact 80 minutes, the connection between the two.

We are reliant on our two actors to let go in this highly charged scenario and, fortunately, they do. Moods change in an instance. I do not think I have ever seen Louise Jameson on stage before though she has had an illustrious theatre career with the RSC and the National Theatre. You will know her best from the telly. Sounds like she is taking on more work in the theatre. Thank goodness. This is not an easy role but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. Anita is grieving for sure, but she is also angry, with her son’s killers yes, with the authorities of course, but also with herself. She still hasn’t yet quite come to terms with her dead son’s sexuality. Tricky to convey. I hope she won’t mind me saying though that debutante, (just about), Thomas Mahy, might have have outshone her. He is a real talent. When the going gets tough and emotional, as it does with his monologue near the end, he is shatteringly convincing. He is more vulnerable than menacing at the start but that worked for me. These characters agree to be honest with each other to seek truth and maybe some absolution. This pair of actors need to be similarly honest. They are.

Robert Chevara is a new director to me though now I see what he can do, and has done, in the world of opera specifically, I see I have been the loser. The play doesn’t require complication. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set and Martin’s Langthorne’s lighting oblige. The Park 90 space fits the bill. This needs to be seen up close. Mind you I don’t suppose this is the product placement Tanqueray and FeverTree, Anita’s chosen tipple, were looking for,

I see that, for once even allowing for how far I have got behind in documenting my cultural adventures, (trust me you learn a lot by having to write about what you see), this production is still on for a few more performances. Go see it. Obviously if you a big fan of blockbuster musicals this may not be your bag but if you want to see what Philip Ridley is about, without the overt savagery, then this is for you.

So I think this at least will be a play that will be revived at the other end of the century. Hopefully as a warning about the dark times when people were attacked and even killed for their sexuality. Though given that has been true for many centuries I wouldn’t bet on it. Yet another thing to curse organised religion for. The well from which much intolerance springs.

I note that there was indeed another production of this very play in Manchester contiguous with this. As for Mr Ridley’s other plays. Of course they will appear, if only because there is a long line in the history of drama, back to the beginning, which seeks to shock its audience both for noble and ignoble purposes. And Mr Ridley, for all his narrative innovation, (and the gifts he serves up to designers), does have the words to back up his conceits of character and location.

Mind you at the pace with which society, and the art that reflects it, is changing who knows what will be de jour in 50 years time. Maybe there will be no live theatre – just a virtual reality experience you conjure up yourself. Like dreams and imagination. Whatever you do don’t click “I accept” and hand those over to the tech corporatocracy.

 

 

Daisy Pulls It Off at the Park Theatre review ***

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Daisy Pulls It Off

Park Theatre 200, 16th December 2017

Funny thing the memory. Even more curious is consciousness itself. It used to be that clever folk conceptualised consciousness as a kind of “theatre of the mind”. Apparently now the cutting edge of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy says this dualism is claptrap and tends towards a more functionalist explanation. As the bard said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. A very clever man, and great admirer of Mr Shakespeare, a certain Mr Tom Stoppard even had a crack at writing a play about The Hard Problem.

Anyway the point is that I distinctly remember really enjoying Denise Deegan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off at the Globe Theatre, (now the Gielgud), when it was such a smash hit in the mid 1980s. As did the SO. It was very funny. Or so I thought.

This latest revival at the Park Theatre was OK. Occasionally funny, but quite often a bit of a chore. Daisy Drags It Out. Now as I understand it this production, directed by Paulette Randall, presents pretty much the original script. It reverts to the original seven strong cast, which means some doubling or trebling up for all but two of them. Which, in my view, led to some of the more amusing moments in the play. Ms Randall and her creative colleagues have chosen to cast the production in a largely age, colour and gender blind way. Anna Shaffer, who debuts as Daisy, was most age appropriate. In contrast, Freddie Hutchins doubled up as Belinda alongside his Mr Scoblowski, Pauline McLynn was a plucky Trixie and Claire Perkins revelled in her roles as Monica, Mr Thompson and Mademoiselle. The rest of the cast, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fulbrook, Shobna Gulati, are all excellent actors, based on other stage and TV performances I have seen, and it was hard to fault their industry or execution here. The production was played moreorless “straight”, as intended, with any hamming up emerging largely from character or costume changes and not from an overly arch, or slapstick, delivery. Libby Watson’s set and costumes were on the money and, in the hockey match and the rescue scene on the cliff-top, the cast conjured up some fine visual drama from inventive movement, using only minimal props.

So why was this such a disappointment, for me, and for LD, who gamely agreed to come along, despite being somewhat suspicious about Dad’s big build up. Well, as I say, I don’t think it was the production, or the cast. I see that some, though by no means all, other proper reviewers got a real buzz out of this. Three possible explanations then. Either it wasn’t as good as I though it was first time around, (though, with the magnificent Lia Williams, alongside Samantha Bond and Kate Buffery, this production did launch some extraordinary acting talent). Or I, and the world around me, has moved on, such that reverent spoofs such as this are no longer novel. Finally it may be that my memory has, to coin the vernacular, “played tricks on me”. This third explanation is likely scientific fact, and not just doddery middle age, the second explanation probably has a great deal to do with it, but I worry that the first may actually bear the bulk of the responsibility. It just may not be as good a play as I thought it was.

I wouldn’t put you off from seeing this if you are new it. There are laughs, (though apparently, to my surprise, there is nothing amusing about the words “frightful muff”), some spirited performances and some fine stagecraft. It does warm up in the second half but never really takes off. The underlying message, snobbery can and will be routed, is so gentle as to be barely perceptible and, it turns out, the whole thing is just a little too in thrall to its sources.  An A for effort, a C for achievement, I am afraid to say.