“Umpire, you can’t be serious!” Well, Dorothy L. Sayers was being rather serious when she wrote Love All, which premiered in 1940. It is not actually about tennis, nor is it a murder mystery, for which the author is famous. Though billed as a comedy, there is a serious, and rather didactic, theme running through it, namely that married women should not be confined to the home, but should be able to pursue their own careers independently of their husbands. One would look hard to find a tenet of faith more firmly established in these irreligious times, but three generations ago there was still a case to be made.
The plot is somewhat contrived. A successful novelist has, for the last eighteen months, been renting an apartment overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, but his mistress, an actress who has been absent from the London stage for all that time, has got nothing to do while he works on his new novel. Meanwhile his estranged wife, supposedly living in a rural backwater in the Home Counties, has become a successful playwright in the West End, and has been too busy to respond to the novelist’s request to co-operate in obtaining a divorce – much harder to do in those days. Her husband does not know about this, as she has been using a nom de plume. Things come to a head when the novelist and his mistress, unbeknown to each other, make their separate ways to London, and fetch up in the wife’s apartment. The novelist’s secretary, hitherto his obedient factotum, comes along too, and all three women in turn put their case against the novelist’s demands and expectations. A put-down of male entitlement indeed. The case as he himself puts it would come with a trigger warning if it was broadcast on Radio 4 Extra, which frequently alerts listeners to its vintage comedies and dramas that they contain “outdated language and attitudes”.
The three women emerge victorious. The issue was never in doubt. But that does not mean that the play is dull. As usual at Jermyn Street, the stagecraft is excellent. The direction, the sets and the cast are top notch, and much of the dialogue is sprightly and witty. I particularly liked the turns put on by two minor characters – the swaggering, arrogant juvenile lead and the playwright’s own frumpy and frigid secretary, who lets her hair down on the quiet.
But is Love All a “rediscovered classic”, as the blurb puts it? More of a rediscovered curiosity, I should say.