Peggy For You

Reviewer's rating

‘Peggy for You’ is revived as part of the Hampstead Theatre’s retrospective season, gathering together some of its most successful new plays of the last 60 years. Alan Plater’s portrayal of a day in the life of the legendary theatre agent, Margaret (Peggy) Ramsey was a great success back in 1999, a few years after Ramsey’s death, and stands up very well to the test of time. Plays about the business of theatre risk a self-conscious archness that threatens the magic on which the stage depends; but not here.

A soundtrack of various Sixties hits sets the mood and the period: we encounter Peggy in her prime, the decade in which she became the unrivalled go-to agent in London and discovered and signed up many on her matchless client list, including Joe Orton, Robert Bolt, Alan Ayckbourn and Plater himself. Tamsin Greig delivers a formidable performance, fully on top of the huge amount of text and dispatching the dry wit, pithy sayings, and damning put-downs, with perfect timing and panache. All that is missing is a touch more brazenly vulgar bravura theatricality which would emphasise the monstrous aspect of her conduct a little more clearly.

The first half is in essence a wonderful guide to the mechanics of writing plays, as we see Ramsey demonstrate her devotion to the art and work of her clients and her skills in assessing and critiquing it. This is driven through encounters with three playwrights each at different stages in their careers – the newcomer, gauche but keen to learn; the newly successful talk-of-the town; and the more cynical established figure who has seen it all. We are also invited to reflect on what the essence of a successful play is, with a range of answers suggested, from the frivolous to the insightful. The second half darkens the tone, and we begin to see the costs associated with Peggy’s no-holds-barred approach to her clients, and ultimately to herself.

All the other characters are excellently played – there is natural give and take between them that lends an easy flow to the dialogue which relaxed a tense audience and took us out of ourselves. As Peggy’s long-suffering secretary, Tessa, Danusia Samal finds enough emotional space to establish a younger and warmer feminine persona; while Josh Finan, as the impressionable boy from the provinces, shows a plausible transition between insecurity and quick-witted cleverness. Jos Vantyler generates swagger and charm as the writer living his success and is perhaps the deftest in deflecting Peggy’s attempts to direct his life; finally Trevor Fox combines wry self-deprecation with moral toughness in holding Peggy to account for her lack of compassion towards personal failings. If we all fail ultimately, how far is Peggy right in asserting that there is no excuse for failing without courage? As in any fine play we are left to assess good arguments on both sides.

As so often at Hampstead the set (by James Cotteril) is excellent in its precise, cluttered, period detail. You really do feel you are inside two shabby, script-littered rooms perched above St Martin’s Lane up three flights of steep stairs. Director Richard Wilson also does a fine job in keeping things moving so that there is always action of visual interest as a counterpoint to fizz and zing of the text (for example, even laying a hideous carpet is crucial in this respect).

At the end in a half-empty theatre the actors returned our applause to thank us for showing up. One can only hope that this excellent production can complete its run, and I urge those with tickets or even just thinking of paying a visit to keep to that commitment – you will not be disappointed.