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Review: Woman Before A Glass (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Austin Pendleton directs the UK premiere of Lanie Robertson's one-woman play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Judy Rosenblatt as Peggy Guggenheim
© Robert Workman

Peggy Guggenheim – arts patron, gallery owner, voracious traveller, giver of legendary parties, active proponent of free love – led a colourful life. Author Lanie Robertson (whose Billie Holiday bio-play Lady Day was in the West End last year with Audra McDonald) has done a decent filleting job to create this solo piece about her. It doesn't delve very deeply but it's entertaining, gossipy, moderately bitchy and packed with information.

Set in the 1960s in Guggenheim's Venetian palazzo – filled with her art collection (which she refers to as her "children") – we first encounter Judy Rosenblatt's Peggy chain-smoking, slugging back martinis and flirting from afar with journalists (and the front row) whilst awaiting a prestigious visitor.

Rosenblatt often addresses us directly and she is a charming, eye-twinklingly naughty presence, although she could stand to make Guggenheim more outrageous and histrionic. Robertson's script relies rather too heavily on having us eavesdrop on Peggy's phone conversations with various figures in her life and although Rosenblatt delivers these one-sided chats with considerable aplomb, the convention becomes tiresomely repetitive.

Tom McClane has capably restaged Austin Pendleton's original off-Broadway production: it's a moderately pleasurable 90 minutes but, given how eventful Peggy Guggenheim's life actually was – she lost her father on the Titanic, was persecuted through Europe by the Nazis, had over 1000 lovers, was devastated by the suicide of her artist daughter Pegeen – the play as a whole feels a little lacking in urgency and dramatic meat.

Despite these reservations, Peggy's story still commands considerable interest and both Robertson's play and Rosenblatt's likeable, if tentative, performance leave one in no doubt that we are encountering a gloriously eccentric and unique character here. To be truly satisfying as a piece of theatre though, it could be a little more flamboyant, and a little less polite.

Woman Before A Glass runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3 February.