To my everlasting regret, I managed to miss both the World Premiere of this play at the Hampstead Theatre in 1999, when it received an Olivier nomination for Best New Comedy, and the revival, again at Hampstead, towards the end of last year. My loss. But now that I’ve finally caught up with it at the Chesil Theatre, exquisitely produced, directed and performed, my gain, and everyone else’s too.
It charts a day in the life of Margaret (‘Peggy’) Ramsay, the forthright and formidable literary agent whose championing of New Writers went a considerable way towards the transformation of the British Post-War Theatre over a 30-year period. Alan Ayckbourn, Robert Bolt, Joe Orton and many more besides were taken on by Peggy, whose often brutal honesty (and tendency towards scattering the ‘F’ word like confetti!), combined with a sharp instinct, established her as a professional force to be reckoned with. Alan Plater’s hugely entertaining play is infused with the ring of authenticity – not surprisingly, as he was one of Peggy’s clients. It’s most definitely not a self-indulgent piece, although there’s a brief cheeky reference to Z Cars, one of his major Television successes.
We first find ourselves in Peggy’s Office (a former brothel – you couldn’t make it up!), very early in the morning, after Peggy – for reasons shortly to be explained in the play – has spent most of the night in a Police Station. Right from the outset, we sense that she is not exactly a run-of-the-mill agent, and where anyone else might have gone home to bed, she has simply come to the office, never one to waste a single moment, to continue poring over the many scripts awaiting her attention.
Mary Mitchell’s Peggy is a tour-de-force, vague enough to send the wrong cheques to the wrong recipients, but otherwise alert to everything – once she’s established that the young man who has just arrived ahead of schedule is a new playwright and not, in fact, the man she’s hired to lay the carpet. A performer of great authority – and, crucially, warmth – she ensures that we never stop caring for Peggy, even through some of her more outrageous utterances (of which there are plenty). She also commands our respect with the authenticity of her performance, and we believe that this woman really did exert a powerful influence, aligned to a deep and incisive knowledge of Theatre and Theatre Writing. At one point, gesturing towards one of her well-stocked bookshelves, she advises Simon, the aforementioned young playwright, to read Ibsen… and it is a measure of this production’s painstaking attention to detail that the script he pulls from the shelf is a copy of Brand, one of Ibsen’s most powerful plays.
As Simon, the young and understandably nervous playwright, Tom Dangerfield brings a fully-fledged characterisation, and we feel (and share) his initial apprehension. When he invites Peggy to a semi-rehearsed reading of his new play, it is impossible not to warm to this sensitive and endearing young performer, who winningly conveys just how much this project means to his character.
The arrival of Tessa, Peggy’s Secretary, brings to the stage another outstanding young performer, Amelie Drew. Her timing alone has to be seen – it’s bang-on throughout (as is, crucially, Malcolm Brown’s sound design and cueing. Those telephones – period pieces, complete with period call-transfer – seem at moments to barely stop ringing). She has great charm, and is confident enough to go head-to -head with whoever she needs to… but reveals a whole new level to her character and performance in act two. This is a fine young actress at work.
Two more playwrights, long acquainted with (and championed by) Peggy, arrive in the office. There’s Philip, an international success, played with glorious brio by Tez Cook, in a crowd-pleaser of a performance – hugely and delightfully funny, always in perfect control, and again we believe entirely in the character he has created. And then there’s Henry, whose track-record hasn’t come close to equalling that of Philip, brought to life by Marcus Whitfield with humour, humanity, and in the second act, some poignant moments of realisation. Of the five characters we meet, it is perhaps Henry who most encourages our sympathy.
The action is beautifully directed by Lisbeth Rake and played out on David James’ detailed and evocative office set, around which hang a selection of ‘period’ play posters (again by Malcolm Brown), plays written by Peggy’s clients. It’s a gem of a production and played by a quintet of superb performers.