Lettice and Lovage
The Senate Suite in Durham Castle is an incongruous but appropriate setting for Lettice and Lovage. Flemish tapestries hanging on the walls and a regal, encroaching fireplace suggest a past in little need of embellishment. Not so for Fustian House, the dreary sixteenth-century hall where Lettice Douffet (Harriet Bradley) guides a motley crew of uninterested and belligerent tourists, enlivened only by her increasingly fantastical imaginings of tales of bygone years.
Bradley as Douffet is wonderfully bonkers and captures perfectly the underlying desperation beneath the grande dame of hyperbole. Her flamboyant theatrics reveal a façade in which she battles against an ugly modern world where the safest retreat is in fantasy. Bradley remains onstage for the duration of the performance but for a couple of fleeting exits and must be highly commended for maintaining such a degree of comic energy throughout. To carry the weight in the production of these relentless antics almost single-handedly is an extraordinary feat.
She provides an amusing contrast to uptight jobsworth Lotte Shoen (Elissa Churchill), who dismisses Douffet for her economy with the truth. After a slightly uncertain start in an office scene that is tediously overwritten, Churchill is allowed to display her versatile range in the scene in Douffet’s flat, where Shoen proceeds to become intoxicated of the putrid herbal brew ‘quaff’, leading to her divulging a shocking youthful indiscretion. Churchill has a natural vulnerability that makes the breakdown of the haughty veneer of Shoen all the more affecting, and her subtle comic timing in playing ‘straight man’ to Bradley’s Douffet should not be overlooked. My only reservation is that Churchill’s features are too fine and delicate, her manner too elegant, to be entirely convincing as dowdy Shoen, but that is nothing that a little smoke and mirrors could not remedy.
There is a touch of repressed sexual tension in the relationship between Douffet and Shoen, two lonely ageing spinsters jaded by lost hope, cynicism and their invisibility in the world. Bradley and Churchill realise this in a mutual pity that binds the one to the other to create a touching, if highly dysfunctional, union. Amusing cameos were provided by Grace Cheatle as a terrifically odd secretary and Michael Forde as a quarrelsome academic.
In the vastly inferior third act there was a noticeable lull in energy, particularly from Bradley. After such a frenzied performance in the first half it was no surprise. Shaffer’s play runs out of ideas after the second act, but is condemned to a third by drawing out a ludicrous premise to its logical conclusion. A momentary respite was provided by Russell Park’s stripping of Mr Bardolph’s lawyerly veneer and beating a drum with manic enthusiasm.
Director Sam Kingston-Jones has a real challenge directing in such a venue. There is one main door through which the actors must enter and exit and the scenery is carried through a curtained passageway stage right. Inevitably, this gave rise to a few moments of awkwardness during the performance, but for the most part scene changes were relatively smooth. The same cannot be said, however, for the sound and lighting, which were of varying volume and intensity throughout. At the beginning of one scene in particular there passed an interminable length of time before the lights went up. This was confusing for the audience and for the actors it was evidently distracting.
Lettice and Lovage is not of the same quality as Shaffer’s older and more renowned works such as Amadeus and Equus. Its structure is looser and the plot is comparatively thin. Considerable tightening of the script would have been to its advantage. But overlook the play’s imperfections and this is a solid and enjoyable production full of very funny lines delivered well and carried along with pace by a strong cast.
19 October 2012