Peggy for You review – Tamsin Greig leads a pitch perfect revival
The piece continues its run at the Hampstead Theatre until 29 January 2022
They say lightning never strikes twice, but it feels as though it has up at Hampstead Theatre where Maureen Lipman gave a career highlight performance as formidable literary agent Peggy Ramsay (1908 to 1991) in the original 1999 production of Alan Plater's richly enjoyable comedy, and now Tamsin Greig is equally magnificent, albeit intriguingly different, in the same role in Richard Wilson's pitch perfect revival.
Both interpretations serve Plater's engrossing script equally well. First discovered asleep fully dressed on a script-festooned chaise longue as early morning light creeps into her office (James Cotterill's marvellously detailed set is almost a character in itself) after spending a night at the police station bailing out a client, she is eccentric but magnetic: Plater has created a fabulous role. Where Lipman led with abrasive energy shading later into fractious vulnerability, Greig comes at Ramsay from the opposite direction, projecting an almost child-like delight at her power within the industry, specifically over the careers of men, and a genuine love for words and writers. The real Ramsay's client list was a who's who of British playwrights, and she was immortalised on film by Vanessa Redgrave in the Joe Orton biography Prick Up Your Ears.
Greig's Peggy is flirtatious with Josh Finan's fledgling playwright and has a flinty camaraderie with her comparatively down-to-earth secretary (Danusia Samual, excellent). Her bizarre charm makes it possible, just about, to overlook the little barbs, the snobbery towards Northerners (the quaint idea that the two Alans on her books – Ayckbourn and Bleasdale – must live in the same street and sup at the same pub just because they're both from north of Watford) and the fact that she still refers to her current secretary by the previous one's name. This is a woman, one imagines, who usually gets her way using a mixture of honey and steel. Where Lipman left you in no doubt about the manipulation, Greig, harnessing her own innate likability and elegance, makes it part of the fabric of the character.
It's later, when a failing client has taken their own life at just the point where Peggy has been dumped by the married playwright she was seeing (a superb Trevor Fox), that we glimpse the personal cost of such devotion to the arts and her career. With just an adjustment in stance and a look of subtle devastation across her face, Greig conveys volumes about Ramsay's disengagement from the realities of human feeling, and her disappointment that actual life sometimes contradicts the rarefied existence she has carved for herself. Her brutal dismissal of a writer because he had stopped creating anything worthwhile and her bewilderment at her secretary's emotional response are all the more chilling, and also suggest that under all the wondrous speechifying and slightly camp posturing, she is incredibly lonely.
An evocative snapshot rather than a biographical piece, Plater's script was so rooted in Peggy Ramsay's real life timeline that it didn't feel particularly new back in 1999, but it has aged well. Writing this witty and generous never really goes out of fashion. Already a much beloved actress, and surely only a BAFTA or two away from full National Treasure status, Tamsin Greig proves once again what a tremendous stage performer she is, a brilliant technician with truth, precision and killer comic timing. We may be within staggering distance of 2022, but this is one of the performances of the year.