Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 8 July 2017
There are lots of reasons I should like Lettice and Lovage: I loved the original production at the then-named Globe Theatre with Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack. I fell IN love once while watching Felicity Kendal – or at any rate met a new partner while pressed knee-to-knee in the gods also of the Globe for a performance of Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests in 1975 in which she played Annie, later developed into her Barbara character for The Good Life and became if not the nation’s sweetheart, then at least my dad’s generation’s.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Maureen Lipman, for her work since Up The Junction really, but especially the TV sitcom Agony and drama The Evacuees which showcased her comic and serious sides in equal and early bloom.
I also like anything that takes a swipe at lazy or grotesque architecture.
So why doesn’t the current production of Lettice and Lovage at the Menier Chocolate Factory push my buttons? I fear it suffers from Forty Years On Syndrome – a circumstance whereby even with what seems like dream casting of Richard Wilson as an irascible headmaster, Alan Bennett’s masterly first play comes up lifeless and irrelevant at Chichester. It’s not necessarily the fault of the cast or director, but that life has moved on considerably since 1968, so we neither appreciate it for contemporary relevance, nor accept it’s gathered enough venerable dust to be treated as a period piece.
By the time he wrote Lettice and Lovage, as a pot-boilerish vehicle to bring Smith back to the London stage in 1987 after an indecently long absence, Peter Shaffer’s career rested on the laurels of Equus and Amadeus and he hadn’t really written a comedy for twenty years.
It’s over-long, and Trevor Nunn should have been brave enough to cut it and hire a script doctor to refresh the lines if not also the plot. It centres on an over-enthusiastic tour guide’s embroidering of her spiel, summary firing by her boss with whom she develops an odd-couple friendship with a subtextual hint of sapphism. A final scene in which they act out famous executions from history has all the apparent allure of comedian Ted Bovis’s ‘Famous People On The Toilet’ sketch from Hi-De-Hi. At least in Hi-De-Hi they had the good taste never to actually show it.
Kendal does most of the comedy heavy lifting, and you can see how her fans enjoy every twinkle, even though a harshly-cut russet wig doesn’t flatter her features. Lipman is obliged to play the martinet, but also to play her with a mittel-European accent which pushes the borders of the fatherland wider than the most ambitious expansionists ever dreamed for the German Empire. Nevertheless she lands some good lines, often fishing them from a sea of wordy passages, and has a drunk scene as leglessly funny as her Olivier-winning Miss Skillion in See How They Run in 1984.
Still got it. Which is the best reason to see this piece.