Friday, 26 May 2017

Lettice and lovage

Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman form an ideal partnership for Trevor Nunn’s latest production

Written by Ian Shuttleworth
Trevor Nunn is one of our most celebrated living directors. It was a sizeable coup for the Menier Chocolate Factory to secure a brace of his productions this year; the first, Love in Idleness, has just moved on into the West end as the second, Lettice and Lovage, opens. Lately, though, Sir Trev hasn’t always been serving his dishes all that hot. He’s big on letting events onstage unfold at a natural pace, even when there aren’t that many events and they could do with the occasional shot in the arm.ian

The odd thing here is that Peter Shaffer’s 1987 play is exactly that sort of piece – talky not event-y – and yet you don’t feel that the two lead actors would be better off led away from Nunnery. There are two reasons for this. The first is Shaffer knew he was writing a duel of performances onstage. Lettice, a historical guide who never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, and a florid Old Theatre Dame with greasepaint running through her veins, was written for Dame Maggie Smith; Lotte Schoen, the personnel head who begins by firing Lettice for her serial embellishments then forges a firm if spiky friendship with her, originally was Margaret Tyzack. And this time... this time they are respectively Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman.

La Kendal: yes, yes, national treasure (and, indeed, herself brought up in the same kind of theatrical rep company as Lettice), but I’m afraid I’ve never been a confirmed devotee. Here, though, she can really stretch out, and revels in Lettice’s astounding historical tales both true and, as she would put it, ‘enlarged’. Even in a dingy basement flat, Lettice positively holds court. And Lipman stops the contest from being a Lettice walkover; her Lotte makes it at least an evenly matched affair. Although no slouch herself at broad acting (she pulls out some fine double- take and strong-drink moments here), Lipman is also at home with detail and not-quite-underplaying. She gives Lotte a slight accent, tacitly ascribed to her one German parent, then strengthens it throughout the central drink-fuelled bonding scene in Act Two until it becomes barely noticeable.

As for the play’s deeper themes, who cares? Not Shaffer, not particularly. The women forge an alliance in their hostility towards what Lettice describes as the ‘mere’ in all walks of life, but it only becomes palpable in the final few minutes for the sake of a strong ending; and the blinding condemnation of modern architecture was already vieux chapeau when the play premièred three years after Prince Charles’s ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech. But oh, it is nice to hear such sentiments being voiced in the very shadow of the Shard...

Until 8 July at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, London SE1: 020 7378 1713, 

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