Peggy for You at the Comedy Theatre
Literary agent Peggy Ramsay, who died in 1991, has already inspired a film characterisation (in Prick Up Your Ears, about the life of Joe Orton), a biography and an extended love-letter of a memoir (care of Simon Callow). Now, after a lifetime representing the interests of her playwright clients - including Orton, Christopher Hampton, Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond, David Hare, Willy Russell and Alan Ayckbourn - Ramsay receives her own stage debut in a tribute penned by Alan Plater, one of her clients for thirty years. Clearly, Ramsay was the type who made a lasting impression
Plater's script, directed by Robin Lefevre, sets out to capture the essence of the woman rather than provide some sort of historical record. He follows what he imagines would have been Peggy's advice in the matter of writing about real people - 'just make sure it's a pack of lies, dear'. To that end, he contrives a totally imaginary day in her offices - a cluttered manuscript-strewn warren and former brothel off St Martin's Lane, as rendered by Liz Ascroft - at the height of Ramsay's power in the late 60s.
Ramsay herself is brought to life in the form of comedienne Maureen Lipman. Whether Lipman succeeds in accurately impersonating the real-life Ramsay is not for me to say, having never encountered the legend, but I can report that Lipman delivers a fine portrait of fun and eccentricity in the extreme. She lopes around the stage in her stockinged feet, hitching up her skirt, honking her approval and projecting her strained-plum voice to the rafters. But her absent-minded habits - confusing associates' names and simple geography, putting her shoes on the wrong feet, leaving an unmanned office wide open - belie a fierce intelligence and some deeply held values, not least the sanctity of art over both personal happiness and business. 'If any of my writers are rich,' she proclaims, 'it's entirely by accident' - ditto for happily married.
The quartet of other cast members, portraying clients at various career stages and a beleaguered assistant, offer able support, but really only serve as foils for Lipman/Ramsay's exhortations. Richard Platt's Henry is granted a bit more room to develop as the once 'Most Promising' playwright who, suffering from domestic bliss coupled with professional stagnation, has lost faith in the Ramsay vision. His bitterness is acute.
'People who listen to me generally come to a bad end,' Ramsay warns, but it's hard to believe, rejected Henrys aside. Certainly Plater's attention to his former mentor hasn't done his entertaining play any harm at all - and it's the audience's gain.