This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
Those poor travellers trapped recently in overnight jams on the road to Dover may take some comfort from the knowledge that, back in the 1920s, things appear to have been even worse. Then, according to AA Milne, the delay could have been as much as seven days.
Milne’s play was first seen in New York and London in 1921/22, but has been largely forgotten since and, if director Nichola McAuliffe’s revival does nothing else, it lays bare the reasons for this. She makes no concessions to conventions of 21st Century theatre and gives us a production that we imagine replicates what we could have seen over 90 years ago, Perhaps its prime appeal will be to audiences that missed the original West End run only narrowly, as typified by an elderly gentleman picking up his tickets at the box office and declaring “I’m not expecting any swearing or nudity!” He need not have worried.
That said, McAuliffe throws in a number of neat comedy touches, which an excellent cast make the most of, and PJ McEvoy’s sumptuous drawing room set sends out an instant message that the production will not be short of quality. There remain question marks over whether this play needed to be revived at all, but, now that it has reached the stage, it is hard to see how it could have been done any better.
Patrick Ryecart is suave, mysterious and mildly threatening as Mr Latimer, wealthy owner of a large house just off the road to the Channel port. With the help of his two servants (Stefan Bednarczyk and Gareth McLeod). he waylays the arrogant Leonard (Tom Darant-Pritchard), a Lord who is running away to France with his prim mistress, Anne (Georgia Maguire). The couple are told that they must stay for seven days, during which their compatibility will be tested. Another couple is about to leave the house, having completed their seven days – Nicholas (James Sheldon) has clearly had enough of the fussing Eustasia (Katrina Gibson) and wants out, but it transpires that Eustasia is the wife from whom Leonard is also escaping.
If some of that sounds a little familiar, it needs to be said hastily that this play was written several years before Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Coward actually makes a contribution here with a delightful song. Forbidden Fruit, written in 1916, which is the high point of the first act when performed by Bednarczyk, accompanying himself on an antique piano. Links between the two writers provide some of the play;s most intriguing features, because it was Coward who was to take the baton from playwrights such as Milne and give this brand of lightweight upper class comedy enduring appeal. Milne’s consolation would come in the form of a cuddly bear.
Unfortunately, comparisons with Coward do not flatter Milne, whose writing is uneven and sometimes dull. The wit, which is spread too thinly, is never sharp enough to haul the play out of its many troughs.The final scene begins promisingly with another hint of Coward, this time introducing a theme that would recur in Design For Living. However, from there, it is all downhill towards a disappointing conclusion, with the plot rambling slowly and aimlessly as if Milne did not have the faintest idea how to round it all off.
The Dover Road is a quaint museum piece, but this revival is mounted with such obvious affection that it becomes very difficult to dislike and, at very least, it is a lot more entertaining than queuing for a Channel crossing.
Performance date: 8 September 2016
Photo: Matthew Kaltenborn