The plot of Rosemary Friedman’s An Eligible Man is straight-forward enough: wealthy, recently widowed London Judge Topher (Graham Seed) is pursued by three divorcees all hoping to relieve him of his grief, his loneliness, and no doubt a good amount of his money as well.
It is in many ways a classic, Coward-esque drawing room farce, reminiscent of Present Laughter in that its protagonist spends the majority of his time staving off (mostly) unwanted romantic attentions. As Topher (just one of a series of bizarre character names - others include Penge and Chrysanthemum) struggles to move on from the memories of his dead wife, doors slam and countless whiskeys are poured as he juggles the increasingly desperate approaches of his trio of would-be wives.
As ‘eligible man’ Topher, Graham Seed lacks a consistency of character that makes his performance altogether rather odd – unfinished sentences and sudden bursts of anger leaving one wondering if he is in fact slightly mad. Sadly, this means that much of the comedy gets mangled by a tone of delivery that can best be described as functional. Fortunately, he is ably supported by Malcolm James as the wise and gentle best friend Marcus, and Maggie Hallinan as Lucille, the lady who comes closest to snatching the prize.
The direction of Ninon Jerome is stuttered and lacks flow, with lengthy blackouts and by-numbers character notes creating the overall impression that much of the potential contained in the script is left unrealised. On the plus-side, there is some nice ensemble playing, and when the occasional line does hit the spot, it reminds one why Friedman has maintained such a prolific writing career.
This production must be judged in its context – I certainly don’t fit the demographic of its intended audience - but that is no excuse for lazy direction and stilted line delivery. Done well, drawing room comedy is the most accessible and joyous of genres, but when it lacks bite and lacks surprise, it can feel like a very long evening indeed.