Duel of the high-powered grandes dames
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.
Spiky: Maureen Lipman and Felicity Kendal in ‘Lettice and Lovage’