Edward Hall’s touring production, now playing a season at the Vaudeville, is the first in the West End since Penelope Keith surprised us and later Penelope Wilton astonished us as Hester Collyer, the suicidal clergyman’s daughter who has abandoned Eaton Square for a lodging house in Notting Hill, exchanging her High Court judge husband for a heavy-drinking hero of the Battle of Britain.
At which point it would be good to announce that Greta Scacchi - whose Spitting Image puppet, auditioning for Richard Attenborough, used to screech “Don’t you want to see me naked?” – had redefined her acting profile for good. She remains a strikingly beautiful stage presence, but her voice is tinny and her emotional power somewhat forced. Don’t get me wrong. She’s good. And Hall’s production is fast and furious on an atmospherically dingy boarding house designed by Francis O'Connor, lit by Peter Mumford; it has to be, really, as the first two acts are played straight through without an interval, a big mistake.
The rhythm of Rattigan’s expert structure needs the two intervals. The point was perhaps made by one overweight critic falling straight through his seat while remaining glued to it for that first uninterrupted 90 minutes.
Why is Hester so distraught? She has been knocked sideways by sex and is riven with anger and shame. Ivor Brown once said she needed a good slap and a chat with a marriage counsellor. But Rattigan suggests she will survive through her painting and an assumption of a sort of baffled dignity.
I don’t believe this in Scacchi’s performance, or not as much as I did with Penelope Wilton 15 years ago, or indeed with Harriet Walter on tour more recently. Scacchi does convey a hectic dismay once Freddie, whom Dugald Bruce-Lockhart plays with a shocking selfishness and self-pity, has gone. But surely this Hester would return to Simon Williams’ painfully decent and sympathetic judge?
There is good work from a slightly miscast Tim McMullan as the furtive Polish doctor with his own unexpressed history of misfortune, and Jacqueline Tong as the flustered landlady, who gets the play off to a flying start in that extraordinary, information-packed opening scene.
- Michael Coveney