Duel of the high-pow­ered grandes dames

Financial Times USA - - ARTS - Ian Shut­tle­worth To July 8, me­nier­choco­late­fac­tory.com

In re­cent years it has some­times seemed that Trevor Nunn, in his pro­duc­tions, has rated an un­forced pace over dra­matic ur­gency; not to put too fine a point on it, he has ap­peared con­tent to let things am­ble when they could have done with a bit of a gee-up. The sec­ond of his Me­nier Choco­late Fac­tory pro­duc­tions this year (the first, Love In Idle­ness, has just trans­ferred to the West End), shows no such prob­lems, even though it’s pre­dom­i­nantly a talky piece rather than an event­ful one. In fact, per­haps be­cause it’s such a piece.

Peter Shaf­fer wrote the role of Let­tice Douf­fet in the mid-1980s for Mag­gie Smith, who ap­peared in its pre­miere pro­duc­tion op­po­site Margaret Tyzack. In the­atri­cal terms, most of it is a duel for two high-pow­ered grande dame ac­tresses. One the one hand there is Let­tice, a his­tor­i­cal guide who never lets the truth get in the way of a good story and who is the in­her­itrix of a par­tic­u­larly florid fe­male strain of ac­tor-lad­die-ism; op­po­site her, Lotte Schoen, the per­son­nel head who be­gins by fir­ing Let­tice for her se­rial em­bel­lish­ments then forges a firm if spiky friend­ship with her. In Nunn’s re­vival these are re­spec­tively Felic­ity Ken­dal and Mau­reen Lipman.

Ken­dal sel­dom gets the chance to cut loose like this, and takes full ad­van­tage of the re­quire­ment to be as ver­bally and phys­i­cally flam­boy­ant as pos­si­ble. Lipman is a mistress of ill-at-ease as­trin­gency, and turns in a beau­ti­fully de­tailed per­for­mance, right down to a slight one-Ger­man-par­ent ac­cent which grows stronger as she be­comes drunker in the cen­tral Act Two bond­ing scene.

The pair’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to bat­tle against what they damn as the “mere” in all as­pects of life is not as en­livened by Shaf­fer as it could be, and rail­ing against modern ar­chi­tec­ture has also be­come some­thing of a cliché . . . but it im­parts a warm glow to hear such vi­tu­per­a­tion be­ing de­liv­ered in the very shadow of the Shard.

Cather­ine Ash­more

Spiky: Mau­reen Lipman and Felic­ity Ken­dal in ‘Let­tice and Lo­vage’

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