Just noth­ing like th­ese Dames

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER - OPENS THURS­DAY

TEA With The Dames is a much more brac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence than its mild, milky ti­tle suggests.

Judi Dench, Mag­gie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright might all be well into their 80s, but none of th­ese for­mi­da­ble thes­pi­ans has lost their ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a strong and in­vig­o­rat­ing brew.

One of the joys — as well as the frus­tra­tions — of Roger Michell’s re­spect­ful but not overly rev­er­en­tial doc­u­men­tary is the wealth of ma­te­rial it (par­tially) un­earths.

When Dench ob­serves that she and Atkins might have “swung a bit early” in re­la­tion to the ’60s, Michell teases movie­go­ers with a mon­tage of some of their more in­deli­ble per­for­mances at the time.

The rest is pretty much left to our imag­i­na­tions — al­though an­other jig­saw piece falls into place when Dench is later asked what ad­vice she would giver her younger self and she replies: “Try not to be so sus­cep­ti­ble to fall­ing in love.”

Per­haps gen­der plays a part here. Where the great male ac­tors might have held court, their fe­male coun­ter­parts hold back a lit­tle more.

This is an ensem­ble piece, not a mono­logue — which gives us a neat segue into the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing the heady days of the Na­tional The­atre, founded by Plowright’s hus­band, Sir Lau­rence Olivier, a uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged lime­light hog­ger, in the early 1960s.

The chem­istry be­tween Olivier’s Othello and Smith’s Des­de­mona is ren­dered even more elec­tric by the back­stage anec­dotes that have pre­ceded it.

Tea With Dames is also a per­for­mance of sorts, and it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see the ac­tresses’ oc­ca­sional dis­com­fort at be­ing asked to re­veal them­selves.

Smith is per­haps the most ill at ease in this role. She is the wari­est of Michell’s sub­jects. And the most bru­tally funny.

All four ac­tresses ac­knowl­edge the ter­ror that is part of the job de­scrip­tion.

“Fear is the petrol,” says Dench.

And de­spite their for­mi­da­ble screen and stage per­sonas, each of them is can­did about their self-doubt.

Plowright and Atkins, for ex­am­ple, pro­fess not to have had the courage to take on Cleopa­tra at all (as they freely ad­mit, none of them is a con­ven­tional beauty.)

Smith ap­peared in a Cana­dian pro­duc­tion, she says, to es­cape scru­tiny. Dench ini­tially re­fused the role, telling di­rec­tor Peter Hall her ver­sion would be a “menopausal dwarf.”

Tea With Dames has an abun­dance of good lines.

And of course they are im­pec­ca­bly de­liv­ered. More sur­pris­ing, per­haps, is the ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence the ac­tresses pro­vide for each other. Their laugh­ter is hearty. And in­fec­tious.

Michell di­rects with a light, sure touch — as is to be ex­pected from the man be­hind The Mother, Venus and Le Week-end, as well as Not­ting Hill (three films that evis­cer­ate ageist stereo­types.)

Funny, poignant, in­spir­ing.

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