Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

a fustian tour

A boring tour around a boring house reaches the boring staircase . . . yawn  Pictures: Alastair Barmsley

Lettice and Lovage

Highbury Players

(Because of the difficult circumstances involved in staging this production stars have been omitted)

IF your childhood was spent touring rural France with your actor/manager, very English, single parent mother, while she was performing Shakespeare, in French, with her all female company, Les Barbares, then perhaps eccentricity might just be a possibility.

Or in the case of Lettice Douffet a certainty. Let’s be honest, mad and hatters spring to mind. We first encounter her as a guide at Fustian House, a 16th century pile where the only historical event of interest was a visit by Elizabeth I who stumbled when her foot caught in her gown at the top of the stairs. She could have fallen to her death, changing the course of history.

But she didn’t; end of story and end of history. The tourists were bored, Lettice was bored, everyone was bored and for good reason. The house was dull, the staircase ordinary and nothing of note had ever happened there in 400 years.

So to brighten up the tour Lettice embellished that one, single dull, vaguely interesting fact, and like Topsy, the embellishment grew with each new tour until Fustian House had a history to rival that of any stately pile in the nation.

Until, that is, Lotte Schoen, from Human Resources at the house’s preservation trust joins a tour after complaints about the voracity of information being imparted by the guide.

Appalled she summons Lettice to a meeting where she is sacked, but not before we discover our intrepid guide's philosophy of life based on her mother’s code, "Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!" or indeed her view that “fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum”. Without adding lotte and letticecolour all you have is what Lettice calls the ‘merely’.

Thus we have the two different sparring characters that are the hallmark of many of Peter Shaffer’s plays (Equus, Amadeus, Sleuth . . .); the eccentric and delightfully dotty Lettice and the more fact-bound, realistic and straight-laced Lotte with, seemingly, their only common ground an interest in history.

Sandra Haynes as Lotte (left) and Yvonne Lee as Lettice

The dull and the dotty, except we are to discover hidden, exciting secrets in Lotte’s past and, when weeks later they become friends, we find she has discarded her stuffy convention in their growing relationship, which is all going swimmingly, until, of course the police and solicitors become involved – attempted murder being such a terrible bore.

The play is a delightful comedy full of clever lines and witty remarks with Sandra Haynes doing a sterling job as the straight-laced Lotte who finds escape into a world of historical fantasy with Lettice. You feel for her embarrassment when her secret life is set to be revealed to her conventional colleagues, destroying her credibility in their normal world, and raise a glass with her at the end as a new career opens up before her.

And Yvonne Lee does a quite remarkable job as Lettice. Highbury stalwart Denise Phillips who was to play the role, was taken ill a week ago and Yvonne, a former member who recently returned to Sutton after 15 years, was to be the sit back, just follow the script, no worries, prompt.

So, in the spirit of the show must go on, coupled with  persuasion by director Barbara Garrett, Yvonne stepped into the breach, which was no mean undertaking.

With less than a week to learn and rehearse the part it necessitated appearing, first night, script in hand in that twilight zone for actors of knowing the part well, but not quite well enough to tread the boards unaided, although so well did she carry Lettice that the script was soon hardly noticed. Even a loss of place on a couple of occasions was well covered by a natural Lettice vagueness, leaving the audience oblivious that anything had been amiss.


She gives us a Lettice who is suitably wary, even dismissive of ‘merely’ the real world, much happier in the adventure packed worlds she creates, or in relating and reliving the derring dos of the heroes, heroines and tragic figures of history.

It is a wonderful role to play . . . and a difficult one to learn. She is off the stage for no more than a few minutes, talking all the time she is on, with some long speeches and a scattering of words that suggest a more than passing acquaintance with Roget’s Thesaurus, and to top all it she speaks in a style which may be easy on the ear but is a lot more difficult to implant in memory.

From opening night’s remarkable performance Yvonne is not far from discarding the script and embracing Lettice completely.

Trying hard to cope with Lettice is Mr Bardolph, a legal aid solicitor selected because of his name, a character in Falstaff’s merry band. His job is to defend Lettice who is accused of a crime against Lotte she didn’t actually commit, didn’t actually happen, at least as a crime, and one which Lotte did not actually report and Lettice doesn't want to talk about.

All a bit frustrating and Rob Alexander meanders his way around the difficulties with admirable legal elegance.

Then there is good support from Kerry Grehan as Miss Framer, Lotte’s assistant at the trust, who is a sweet, attractive girl but hardly one of nature’s gifted intellectuals – think short planks – while Malcolm Robertshaw is the rather obnoxious Elizabethan scholar who pops up among the assorted collection of visitors. He upsets the apple cart by demanding to know the provenance of Lettice’s ever more outlandish claims.

Robertshaw, incidentally, was responsible for the excellent set design with the three scenes on a revolve meaning scene changes, Fustian House to Lotte’s office to Lettice’s flat, are not only highly effective sets but are changed and ready in seconds.

A new member of cast at such a late stage must affect the entire company and play havoc with rehearsal schedules but not so you would notice. Garrett has instilled a good pace and the result is an enjoyable and clever comedy, despite its obvious difficulties which, from opening night, appear very close to being resolved. To 17-12-16

Roger Clarke


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