Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 8 July 2017
ENLARGE, ENLIGHTEN , ENLIVEN…ENTERTAIN!… Expatiating on the Grand Staircase of a dreary Tudor stately home (built with ironic love by designer Robert Jones) our tour guide Lettice Douffet opens with a virtuosa display of highly embroidered historical legends, growing wilder for each tour party.
Felicity Kendal hurls herself through it, bright-eyed and irresistibly overdramatic, plucking ever more nonsense from the air: the gawping ensemble definitely give excellent Tourist, reappearing as a stage-army three days running in satirically diverse leisurewear. Only after her last wild flight about a tragic bride spending years mewed up “howling the wedding song specially composed by Henry Purcell” is Lettice hauled in to the Trust GHQ by the uncompromisingly stern Miss Schoen from Personnel. And sacked.
And when Kendal sweeps in to her fate in a Mary Queen Of Scots full-length velvet execution gown, another piece of dream casting sees the desk of judgement occupied by Maureen Lipman in a stern tweed suit, deploying her most reproving bureaucratic staccato.
Yet after the deed is done Lotte Schoen cannot quite let go the acquaintance with this wild romancer who feels that fantasy must “rush in where facts leave a vacuum”; this storytelling self-dramatist who reckons that if an Elizabethan knight didn’t really leap fifteen stairs in one bound to catch Gloriana in his arms and feed her on swans and gilded hedgehogs, he damn well should have. So Lotte reappears, ten weeks and a slidingly ingenious scene-change later, in Lettice’s basement flat. Thence flowers one of the oddest, most beguiling buddy-stories imaginable.
The late Sir Peter Shaffer’s play is revived under Trevor Nunn in memory of his friend: it is not Shaffer’s most famous (that would be Equus – or Amadeus , so brilliantly realized now at the National Theatre. It is a curiosity, not just as an unfashionably rhetorical piece of writing, but because though nearly thirty years old it is startlingly in tune with modern defiances. For it is entirely about the friendship of two middle-aged women: eccentric women, women whose hearts and imaginations gloriously defy their plain-bread histories and single status. Indeed no mainstream play currently onstage would so triumphantly pass for the vast majority of its length the Bechdel Test: “two women talking together about something apart from a man”.
Lettice lures the seemingly stern Lotte into her world of dramatic historical romance; Lotte warms and unbends and tells her own story, with its own startling incident and deep-felt romance about the beauty of buildings and the atrocity of 1960’s architectural vandalism. Artfully Lipman, warmed by a terrifying home-made beverage of her new friend’s, regains a softer German lilt as she recalls her father’s love of lost European beauties: of Dresden.
It is a lovely duet, the two women’s natures and imaginations in contrast and counterpoint. Their talk expands Shaffer’s theme into the shrinking of the communal soul and the hunger for the beautiful and dramatic. Even if – as is generally the case with Lettice Douffet – it tips over rapidly into preposterous invention. As to the dramatic thing which seems to have happened over six months while we were out for the interval, the play is sufficiently forgotten now to prohibit detailed spoilers. Let it just be said that another startlingly unforgettable costume appears on Felicity Kendal, and that for a period Maureen Lipman’s face takes on an unwontedly sullen, grumpy, infuriated expression before lighting up – again and for good .
And that we all sail with the ladies into the mental world of Lettice , where despite the banal mere-ness of the age one may be “enlarged, enlivened, enlightened” . And warmed.
box office 0207 378 1713 to 8 July