The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring-Summer 2017
Lettice And Lovage is a comedy without enough laughs, a satire without enough bite and a melodrama without enough at stake.
What it is successfully, however, is a star vehicle, an opportunity for two actresses of immense charisma and ability to show off for our delight. And it is as an excuse to watch Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman at work that it is best enjoyed.
Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus, Equus, Royal Hunt Of The Sun and others, essentially wrote the same play over and over – a man of limited soul encounters a genius/saint and is driven to destroy him, damning himself in the process.
Lettice And Lovage is an attempt to domesticate and feminise the formula, allowing the contrasting figures to reconcile comically. But to get there Shaffer has to bend characterisations and employ awkward dramaturgy in ways that are too often inconsistent, unbelievable or just plain boring.
It is best not to try to make it all make sense, but just to enjoy each separate scene for its own sake.
Felicity Kendal plays a tour guide at a very dull stately home, who tries to keep her tourists awake by inventing a colourful history for it. Maureen Lipman is the all-business National Trust executive who feels obliged to fire her.
In Act Two, for reasons never really explained, Lipman has a change of heart and the two bond over some potent drinks and become friends. The second interval covers another big change, and by Act Three the pair have found a hobby in re-enacting historical executions, only to have a neighbour's misunderstanding lead to Kendal's being arrested for attempted murder.
You see what I mean about it not making sense, and I haven't mentioned the long screed against modern architecture, meant to show that Lipman's character has hidden depths of passion, but seeming to have wandered in from some other play.
Ah, but in the middle of all this we experience such gloriously comic moments as Kendal's character getting carried away by the romance of her own tall tales, and later watch in delight as Lipman effortlessly steals a scene with double-takes and facial expressions that silently and comically react to her friend's uncontrollable enthusiasm.
And in between we have that Nirvana of all actors, a drunk scene, in which we get to watch as the two stars offer a master class in comically indicating various levels of tipsiness.
Director Trevor Nunn's contribution is to guide each of his stars to twinkle in the ways they each best can, and if he can't make the play as a whole make much sense, we simply have to not ask that of him.
There are signs that the director could have drilled his cast – Petra Markham and Sam Dastor also appear, in quietly supportive roles – more rigorously. On Press Night no one was absolutely certain about their lines and cues, and what little continuity of characterisation the playwright offered was constantly being broken by flashes of panic in the actors' eyes.
Once everybody gets more confident and things settle down, the play should run more smoothly and the comic timing be more effective, offering even more opportunity to enjoy the two stars at play.
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