Review – Lettice and Lovage, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st May 2017

Lettice and LovagePeter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage first hit the stage way back in 1987 as a star vehicle for Maggie Smith. I knew that we had seen the play before but I was darned if I could remember seeing la grande dame in the role – I am sure I would have remembered. I can just imagine how she would have grasped it with – well everything you can grasp with.

LAL guidingMove forward another twenty years and none other than Sir Trevor Nunn has directed a spanking new production in the intimate charm of the Menier Chocolate Factory and cast two theatrical favourites – Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman. Perfect for this almost two-hander, theatrically genteel boxing match between the guide who embellishes the history of the dullest Stately Home in the country to make it remotely interesting, and the battleaxe from the Preservation Trust who sacks her.

LAL being firedTo be honest, it’s a very slight play and I’m surprised that both Sir Trev and the Menier were that interested in reviving it. It doesn’t do much to illuminate the human condition, although it does appeal to the YOLO generation, as Lettice and Lottie cast care to the wind and become the least likely pals since Margaret Thatcher and Eric Heffer. The play did remind me of the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle who for several years post-retirement was a room warden at the National Trust’s property at Waddesdon Manor, and who took great delight in finding out as much about the treasures on display as possible – but there’s nothing more challenging than being asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, and having a fertile imagination can make the experience even more enjoyable!

Lettice and LottieFortunately, this production benefits from two totally delightful performances which make the two and a half hours plus absolutely fly by. No linguistic contortion is too strained for Felicity Kendal’s Lettice, as she recollects the dear old days of supporting her mother and father on the stage, an eccentric Bohemienne to her fingertips, concocting potent jugs of 16th century punch distilled from lovage and eye of bat. Similarly, Maureen Lipman wallows in her opportunity to be the frosty frowsy bossy boss, ridiculing her underlings, putting up with no nonsense, but just wondering if it is time to (nearly literally) let her hair down. Maybe the excellence of the two main performances highlights the patchiness of some of the supporting ensemble, not that that spoils your enjoyment of the play.

LetticeSlight, but funny; you won’t talk about the characters’ motivations or the thematic structure of the play on the way home, but you might well crack up reminiscing about Miss Lipman’s wonderful drunk act or Miss Kendal’s heartier-than-thou ham-Shakespearean verbal dexterity. If ever they cast Women Behaving Badly, they need look no further. The entire run is now sold out, but I doubt if this production, unlike some of the Menier’s other recent successes, would warrant a transfer. Sorry guys, if you’re not already booked, you’ve missed it.

LottieP. S. We didn’t see the original production. I remember now – we saw a production in 1997 with two other Dear Ladies who gave it an equally good grasp – yes, Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket. And if you can remember what Hinge and Bracket were like in their prime – I can confirm they were really very funny.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – Aspects of Love, Menier Chocolate Factory, July 25th

Aspects of LoveI came to this production with no preconceptions at all, as I’d never seen it before, and had never heard the score (apart from Love Changes Everything, of course). And I am delighted to report that the Menier is back on track with a complete winner. It’s a terrific little show, telling an interesting grown-up story with sensitivity and maturity. Trevor Nunn continues to be one of my all-time heroes.

The cast are excellent; I have read comments that Michael Arden as Alex is straining to get the vocals but I don’t agree. His singing comes across as pure and youthful – which he appears to be throughout the show, always younger than the more experienced Rose and pure enough not to take advantage of young Jenny when she throws herself at him. And when he powerfully delivers the big version of Love Changes Everything the contrast with his otherwise quiet performance is very effective.

Katherine Kingsley Katherine Kingsley sings beautifully, looks great, and for me was totally convincing as the needy Rose. Dave Willetts as George was the epitome of earthly pleasures and you wouldn’t trust him with a bargepole at first; but as he gets older, he conveyed to me his growing frailty with conviction and integrity. Super.

It’s charmingly and effectively staged, and the small band gives the show sufficiently good musical support for a small theatre. It’s a really lovely score; and although nothing is as memorable as Love Changes Everything, there are some great tunes and singing the lines never feels artificial.

Michael Arden It is, however, by no means perfect. Alex starts the show looking nostalgically through his old photos, saying that if he had never gone to the theatre none of this would have happened. That implies regret – but I saw nothing in Alex’s journey (yes I used the “J” word) that would justify long time regret at his life. He gets the girl often enough, and it appears to end “happily ever after” for him. So I don’t get that. The prologue seems to serve no useful purpose other than to introduce us to the idea of the overhead projector that plots the course of the show.

Also – schoolboy error – the map of Malaya and surrounding countries that’s projected onto the screen when Alex is in the army clearly shows the town that would have in those days been called Saigon, but here named Ho Chi Minh City. I think it changed name in the 1970s sometime? Hmm. Back to the drawing board with that one I think.

I just love sitting in the front row of the Menier. You’re so up close and personal with the performance, it’s as though you are another member of the cast. And the nice young lady at the box office said “Welcome back” when I collected our tickets. I felt valued as a customer. I’ll definitely come back, don’t you worry about that. Mind you, on reflection I think I might have been a trifle too kind about Paradise Found