“After you, Cecil; no, after you Claude” was a catchphrase in post-War radio comedy that fed off the drawing room etiquette so amusingly nailed in this late Victorian rarity by Henry Arthur Jones, best known for The Liars and The Case of Rebellious Susan. Who goes first, and on whose arm, as the company adjourns to dinner, is the burning question.
And it’s charmingly posed in this fluffy, seasonal diversion, pointedly directed by Auriol Smith, a social comedy with a lot of references to the kind of issues raised by George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker and Arthur Wing Pinero – you had to have three names to write this sort of stuff – but one hinged on an obsession with status and a perceived slight.
At a dinner party where Lady Bodsworth (Claire Carrie), a grocer’s daughter, is flaunting her husband’s recent elevation, she is dubbed an “impropriety” by the ambitious Mary Whichello (Susie Trayling) on account of her vulgar nattering, highly coloured make-up and ridiculous blonde coiffure. She’s as good as been called a whore – a law suit is duly delivered and the case hovers on the brink of going to court.
This crisis is deliciously embroiled in Mary’s own campaign to recover an ancient baronetcy for her golf-crazy husband (Michael Lumsden) and further his political prospects with the Liberals while the Tories plot away in their local club and the development plans for a new cemetery are factored in to the wheeler-dealing. It sounds more like Priestley and the Manchester school than Shaw and Barker, and it’s fascinatingly funny.
There is nothing about the play that is not historically interesting. First performed in 1913 (with Marie Tempest, Coward’s first Judith Bliss, in the title role), it reflects the temperature of the day in matters of party donations, honours for cash, scandal in public life, election fever and political expediency; so we’re not completely at sea in its subject matter.
The quality of writing is not maintained throughout and the play dips in each half. But the acting is a delight, especially the war of words and grimaces between Lady B and Mary – Carrie succeeds, beautifully, in making the former a figure of glee and sympathy – and the stilted “old boy” exchanges between Damien Matthews’ thrusting young lawyer, Timothy Carlton’s high Tory physician and Christopher Naylor’s imperious Liberal whip.