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On Approval

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
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New Jermyn Street artistic director Anthony Biggs does at least do us one big favour in his stilted revival of Frederick Lonsdale's 1927 comedy: he allows us to see how very unfunny it is without the essential dressing of sharp, stylish "personality" acting.

Whereas Noël Coward re-cast snobbery, hedonism and spoilt behaviour in the armoury of smart language, bravura wit and brilliant construction, Lonsdale exposes the footling exchanges between a penniless duke, his self-effacing chum, their society hostess and a merry widow, Maria Wislake, as a glum, plodding quadrille initiated in London after dinner and concluded in Scotland in a snow drift.

The dominant Maria, rich and middle-aged, is played by Sara Crowe with optimistic grandeur, as though occupying a large hall echoing with hollow laughter. Nothing she says is amusing, but nobody told her that. She's at daggers drawn with the Duke of Bristol, whom Peter Sandys Clarke plays with a silken drawl and a flushed cheek.

His friend Richard Halton (Daniel Hill) has carried a flame for Maria for 20 years, which is hardly surprising as he takes ten minutes and half a box of matches to light his cigar. The poor fellow decides to address his remarks to the lighting grid in a spasm of embarrassment so sustained that he then drops (and loses) a drinks cabinet key.

Meanwhile, Louise Calf's hale and hearty Helen Hayle, the hostess with a low hem-line and a high income (her father made a fortune in bottles and pickles), is pinning her hopes on the duke. Maria proposes a trip to a Scottish hunting lodge - Cherry Truluck's minimal art deco design is awkwardly obliterated with a panelled screen and a stag's head - where these two liaisons are tested "on approval" for marriage.

Of course, everyone gets on each other's nerves, but not nearly as much as they on ours. Sandys Clarke sustains his glib, oafish buffoon beyond the point of eccentricity, which is brave of him, while Hill rescues something from the débris of his own performance when he suddenly adopts the persona of Richard Briers.

Calf pouts and plays the piano very prettily, and Crowe suggests she might soon be as foxily matriarchal as Patricia Routledge (with a sexy twist). But the play ends feebly and inconclusively. How on earth could Lindsay Anderson, of all people, have admired it so much? Biggs and Jermyn Street have made some wonderful rediscoveries lately, but this is not one of them.


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