That dean, the Very Rev Augustin Jedd, DD, is played by Nicholas Le Prevost as Very Much Less Rev, DD or otherwise, when he finds himself banged up and covered in straw: “I feel as though I’ve been walked over by a large concourse of the lower orders.”
It’s a lovely line in a lovely production by Christopher Luscombe that marks the start of his artistic directorship in this Victorian jewel of a theatre, too long in the mediocre doldrums, and reminds us of how cleverly Pinero “modernised” sentimental comedy in a new style of social theatre writing.
The dean’s dilemma is a real one: he needs money for the Minster (while his simpering daughters, Salome and Sheba, charmingly played by Florence Andrews and Jennifer Rhodes, need money for their dresses) and, under pressure of laying a sure-fire bet, is bamboozled into giving a racehorse, Dandy Dick, an “illegal” pick-me-up on the eve of the meeting.
The plot is stirred by the breezy, beside-the-sea arrival of the dean’s sister, Georgiana Tidman, a whip-cracking widow and distant cousin of Boucicault’s Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance, full of equine metaphor and energy, and played to the glamorous hilt by Patricia Hodge. Another catalytic “type” in the comedy is the dean’s old Oxford chum, Sir Tristram Mardon, Bart, the horse’s owner, whom Michael Cochrane plays fit to bust right out of his plus fours and tweedy jacket; I say, steady as she goes old chap, what what?
The play was last seen in London forty years ago, with Alastair Sim and Patricia Routledge as the dean and Georgiana; Le Prevost and Hodge reclaim the piece in their respective manners of wry, deflective and befuddled humour in his case, and a far sexier, less suburban, less harridan-like, demeanour in hers.
Beautifully designed by Janet Bird, the show looks as you’d like a Victorian comedy to look, without being arch or stuffy: there’s a nice glimpse of lawn before the distant Minster; a richly furnished deanery drawing room with a library alcove; and a scene of low-ceilinged sparseness in the “strong box” where the policeman’s wife, Hannah Topping (the tumultuous Rachel Lumberg), is skinning a carrot to within an inch of its somewhat ambiguous life.
Luscombe, abetted by the ever ingenious composer Nigel Hess, finds a way of recycling the sisters’ musical aptitude into a witty and underpinning aspect of the production, so that the play gleams and sparkles anew, all cobwebs dispelled.