Fashionable though it might have become in some town and country houses to dismiss Frederick Lonsdale as a second-rate Noel Coward, his comedy On Approval at Jermyn Street Theatre merits watching as a historical timepiece. He keeps us laughing while at the same time he tells us much about what has changed in social mores since the 1920s and what remains amusingly the same, in spite of everything. Lonsdale was a formidable talent who left an impressive genetic as well as literary and musical theatre legacy, numbering among his grandsons the actors Edward and James Fox and the producer Robert Fox. The play is extremely enjoyable, in particular the acting talent, and the scope the script allowed for nuance and mannerisms used to comic effect. Daniel Hill stood out as Richard Halton, his expressive features conveying vulnerability and absurdity compared to the cultured but impoverished grandiosity of Peter Sandys Clarke as the Duke of Bristol. Sara Crowe was a wonderfully blonde Maria Wislake while Louise Calf played Helen Hayle with convincing empathy.
The plot revolves around the eternal triangle of love versus money versus marriage. Maria Wislake decides to take Richard to her Scottish mansion for a month ‘on approval’, a radical idea in the 1920s, to find out what his motives are for loving her, to see if he is what he seems to be and whether he would make a good husband. The other two characters end up in Scotland as well, and romantic intrigue ensues. There are some great lines that hold as true today as then although director Anthony Biggs has kept the play’s period integrity intact. ‘I looked at him and believed he was everything he was not,’ we hear, the depressingly common cry of the foolish woman who has moved on from an infatuation with an unsuitable man. The play also reminds us of the quotidian sexism and snobbery of life not so very many decades ago. ‘She’s not crying because I said she was 41. She’s crying because she is 41,’ says the Duke.
Jermyn Street theatre is small and intimate. It was an unexpected pleasure to be up close to this piece in these perfectly set living rooms, designed by Cherry Truluck, to be reminded how people smoked and drank constantly, to enjoy Lonsdale’s quick and rebarbative repartee brought back to life from another age. It made us laugh, was never dull and was not too long. There is much to learn in that, for actors and writers, and much to enjoy for an audience.
Review by Ruth Gledhill who you can follow on Twitter @RuthieGledhill
19th April 2013