For the sake of argument, I shall stick to the character names as given in the cast list, though not all is as it seems in what has become a period drama. For the most part, the characters address one another formally – Godfrey Daybrook (Alan Cox), a novelist, and Mary Birch (Bethan Cullinane), his secretary, for instance, address one another as Miss Birch and Mr Daybrook respectively. The play, which premiered in 1940, is set in 1938, and wasn’t a commercial success – and to be blunt, it’s not difficult to see why. Parts of the dialogue are very repetitive and Daybrook’s sheer misogyny, even taking into account the social attitudes of the day, caused a mixture of reactions at the performance I attended, from eye-rolling to raucous laughter – at him, rather than with him.
That said, it’s not, ultimately, a bad play, and it says something quite damning about our apparently more enlightened and progressive times that some of Daybrook’s attitudes and trains of thought still prevail, even if they are presented with greater subtlety these days. There is something rather satisfying, too, about Daybrook’s significant others, Janet Reed (Leah Whitaker) and Lydia Hillington (Emily Barber) ending up enjoying success in their chosen fields without his input or the desire, let alone need, to stay at home and be Daybrook’s baby machines.
It is, to an extent, drama about drama: two of the three acts are set in Reed’s flat, which acts as a home office. The playwright’s secretary, Stella Coppingham (Karen Ascoe), before the days of answering machines, is repeatedly interrupted from ploughing through Reed’s correspondence by miscellaneous telephone calls, partly on account of a production of Reed’s new play being produced: later, actor Michael Selby (Daniel Burke) makes himself at home in the flat, with good reason, while producer Henry Norton (Jim Findley) possesses pragmatic optimism, in the sense that he has a promoter’s flair about him but his outlook is nonetheless rooted in reality.
The other act, the first one, is set in Venice, with some odd viewpoints about the locals that are, sad to say, still held by some people today. It’s full of conversation between Daybrook and Hillington, including a largely unremarkable (if mildly amusing) argument about the pluses and minuses of life in Venice as opposed to being a little less central or even back in Blighty. Hillington’s longing to be back in a theatre was (sort of) reminiscent of those days not so long ago when the theatres were closed due to public health restrictions. Despite plot twists being as predictable as night follows day, a relatively brisk pace and a hugely talented cast help to maintain interest in this affirming and playful production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Lydia thought abandoning the West End to elope to Venice with a romantic novelist would be exciting. But Godfrey writes all day, his divorce is taking forever, and the Grand Canal smells ghastly. Back in London, a new female playwright is taking theatreland by storm, and Lydia resolves to bag herself the role of a lifetime. There’s just one snag: the mysterious playwright is Godfrey’s wife.
BY DOROTHY L. SAYERS.
DIRECTED BY TOM LITTLER.
8 SEPTEMBER – 8 OCTOBER 2022