It's interesting how plays and the playwrights who pen them sometimes travel in pairs, even if it is by accident rather than design. A few months ago, the Donmar Warehouse revealed David Mamet taking a period turn and scripting a slyly epigrammatic encounter between two women and their maid in Boston Marriage; now Ron Hutchinson has also turned the clock back from his usual contemporary mode to script a no less epigrammatic duologue between a master and his manservant in The Beau.
In both cases, you can feel the authors' relish as the dazzling one-liners bounce off the walls and reverberate in the stalls. But do they inform the characters - or merely show off the playwright? With the Mamet, the suspicion was that the joke was on us; we were being taken by surprise by a playwright whose usual metier was far less restrained. But with Hutchinson's new play, the joke is for us; and also, of course, for the two actors who seize it with such relish in Caroline Hunt's handsomely despatched production.
On a high, wide set by Ashley Martin-Davis, we discover Beau Brummell holed up in Calais near the start of the 19th century. Here, Brummel is in undignified exile from England after he threw an ill-timed insult at the Prince Regent at a society function, enquiring of one of the Prince's flunkeys, "Who is your fat friend?" He is also, when we first see him, in undignified nakedness, with his servant Austin trying both to bathe him and simultaneously discourage him from committing suicide.
If the sight of Nicole Kidman naked in The Blue Room was theatrical viagra to some of the critical fraternity, then the sight of Peter Bowles, naked in the title role here, is surely theatrical bromide. (The only consolation is that we don't get so much a full frontal as a full rear).
Still, Bowles is to the manor born in the role. The actor's natural pomposity, which I usually find so resistible, is perfect for the paranoid delusions that his character labours under. Better still is Richard McCabe, gloriously dishevelled as he struggles to marshal his master's madness.
Though Hutchinson's play has nowhere much further to go in the second act than it has already travelled in the first, there's certainly pleasure to be had from listening to Beau's pronouncements on wit and style - and some particularly astute advice to audiences (and critics) on the etiquette of how to shred plays they are seeing by finding just the right phrase to destroy it. Like a 19th-century Quentin Crisp, Beau Brummell was an original; and this play honours his originality.
- Mark Shenton