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Peggy For You by Alan Plater at Hampstead Theatre

Tamsin Greig is eminently engrossing, likeable and a first-rate comedienne. It is for this reason that Richard Wilson’s revival of the 1999 Hampstead Theatre original play Peggy For You is both an extremely pleasant diversion and a missed dramatic opportunity.

Peggy For You featuring TAMSIN GREIG © Helen Maybanks.
Peggy For You featuring TAMSIN GREIG © Helen Maybanks.

It’s the late 1960s and we meet the legendary playwrights’ agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay (Tamsin Greig) in her script-strewn and production poster-festooned office (conveyed with painstaking care by designer James Cotterill) in her stocking feet and yesterday’s workwear – not having been to bed for having bailed out a client who got too alcoholically merry outside the French Embassy on the occasion of Alfred Jarry’s birthday the previous night.

How do we know this? Because, in rather old-fashioned construction, Peggy undertakes a series of single-sided telephone conversations and thus we learn her patter. First to a client whom she awakes at the dawn hour with a droll bit of advice about Russian playwrights and commercialism and then by answering a call from Bill, whom we later learn is the man with whom she lives and refers to as ‘more of a wife’ than a husband to her. These two phone calls are clearly intended to offer us contrasting experiences of the world according to Peggy. She effusively calls both men ‘darling’ and dear’. We should get the sense, from the script, that to the writer she is acerbic but devoted and to the domestic partner she is charming but dismissive. Except we don’t. Because the off-stage Bill, who bookends the play, is never really developed or drawn. Greig, who is without question capable of far more impressive range, seems to have been boxed into a sort of proto-AbFab persona (although the play was written four years after that TV series’ premiere) and wins by entertaining us for a solid two hours but doesn’t give us much reason to be interested in Peggy Ramsay other than taking us on a luvvie big game safari of British theatre greats.

In Act One we meet the fledgling writer Simon (Josh Finan), fresh out of school, gauche and literal-minded. Peggy encourages him and is taken aback with his question, ‘what is a play?’ This question is posed to the multiple writers we meet off and onstage to which each gives different answers – but this partial McGuffin has little force beyond intellectual curiosity and gag set-up. Of course, we perceive the irony that Peggy has never contemplated what the essence of her life’s work is; but so jolly and flippant is she that this existential gun of the first act never goes off in the second. In fact, there is very little ignition of anything throughout this witty period piece.

A bit like Dickens’ ghosts, in addition to the phantasm of theatre future, we also meet the smash hit playwright of today, Phillip (Jos Vantyler) and the promising author of yesterday whose promise has not materialised, Henry (Trevor Fox). They all orbit Peggy but serve no advisory purpose to her, to each other or to the audience. Terribly witty dialogue pings around the stage like a pinball in its machine – displaying top-notch skills and comic timing – but ultimately, we never truly learn what is a play to any of them or why Peggy does what she does. We gain a glimpse at what she has sacrificed for her tunnel vision but, whether it’s a mannered defence mechanism against any vulnerability or simply the way she’s wired, we never find out nor are given any particular reason to care.

The only jeopardy of what is essentially a star vehicle workplace comedy is when the salt-of-the-earth and uxorious playwright Henry announces he’s leaving the agency. There is a moment of pause when he declares, ‘I was never that keen on the real Lucille Ball. Ergo, I’m not mad about a cheap imitation.’ We get a hint that Peggy’s disposition is one of convenience, maybe even survival. Her interior world would indeed be interesting. But, in a puff of smoke, the moment disappears to a very literal and functional discussion of being busy and devoted to her clients. Yes, and? We get no closer to why.

A real-life client, Alan Plater wrote a fundamentally frustrating play originally. Alas Richard Wilson’s direction, whilst solid and eliciting fine comic performances, doesn’t take us any farther ‘over the (dramatic) bridge’ that Peggy insists is the stuff of fine theatre. As a paean to one helluva character, Peggy For You works. For theatre buffs who want to geek out on guessing which dishy details belong to which legend of the London stage, this show is a gas. Simply to while away an evening in the darkest days of winter, Greig is funny and commanding. But, do not expect to get a full dose of a play’s duty to profit and please you equally. (Then again, Aristotle wasn’t a client of Margaret Ramsay Limited.)

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Agents are not supposed to be more famous than their clients – unless, of course, you are the formidable, outrageous and hilarious Peggy Ramsay…

CAST
SIMON – JOSH FINAN
HENRY – TREVOR FOX
PEGGY RAMSAY – TAMSIN GREIG
TESSA – DANUSIA SAMAL
PHILIP – JOS VANTYLER

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER – ALAN PLATER
DIRECTOR – RICHARD WILSON
DESIGNER – JAMES COTTERILL
LIGHTING – JOHANNA TOWN
SOUND – TINGYING DONG
CASTING – ROBERT STERNE CDG
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR – DADIOW LIN

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE ORIGINAL
PEGGY FOR YOU
BY ALAN PLATER
DIRECTED BY RICHARD WILSON
If any of my clients are rich, it’s entirely by accident.
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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