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Peggy for You

Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London.
Until January 29.

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on December 20, 2021
www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Peggy for You Tamsin Greig in Peggy For You. © HELEN MAYBANKS

Tamsin Greig shines in this first major revival of Alan Plater's Olivier-nominated hit play about the legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsay.

Maureen Lipman originally created the role at this theatre in 1999 and brought her great gift as a comedienne to this incredibly funny script. Here however, under the direction of Richard Wilson, Greig nails the comic timing but also accentuates the darker shades of this formidable figure. You come away thinking the while the ride with Peggy would always have been fun she was also somewhat of a monster.

She believed in Art and felt she knew exactly what constituted a great scene and therefore a great play. To any challengers she would point to her track record. At one time or another she represented a great swathe of the greatest playwrights of her era: Ayckbourn, Hampton, Bolt, Plater etc. She also had a literary hinterland and knew Beckett well (“He lived two streets away from my abortionist”) and unceremoniously dumped Ionescu after his romantic attentions became too much.

It was Plater who rightly judged that she was worthy material for play herself. And of course, what a character – the exactitude, the eccentricity and how she combined a razor-sharp mind with that acerbic wit. Her hilarious and often foul-mouthed barbs, often laced with the F word, would have made the great Coral Browne blush.

Ramsay's class upbringing bestowed on her the formidable air of a Duchess, and she played it to the hilt. What the play deftly explores is just how much of that was an act. Were her inability to remember names of people or where they came from, or her hopelessness at business admin, a ploy, and if so was it “passive aggressive” as they say today. She was, after all, a ruthless businesswoman and would win a hand-to-hand battle with any Hollywood mogul who'd take her on over a client's contract. She disdained playwrights who, on achieving some fame, would then go “whoring in Hollywood' but she always made sure they got their money's worth. The play is set – in James Cotterrill's hyper-realistic set that beautifully evokes her office-lair in Covent Garden and transports us back to that era – in Ramsay's 1960s heyday when television was still frowned upon.

She saw herself as a Svengali figure and Plater's beautifully crafted play gives us three of her typical clients visiting her over the course of a day. There's the seemingly gauche 21 yr old Simon (beautifully judged by Josh Finan), who will be her next 'big thing'. There's the dashing and devoted thirtysomething Philip (Jos Vantyler) who has made it big and is literally wallowing in champagne, and there's Henry (Trevor Fox in perfectly droll form), a fortysomething, dependable client of hers whom she's been taking for granted for years. She chides him for being too happily married. Wives and domestic life got short shrift from Peggy, being in thrall to the modish idea of the artist as a 'sacred monster' where art can only emerge from selfishness or at worst chaos.

Greig, in an affectionate and hilarious portrait, brilliantly details how she operated. Girlishly playful when the moment required it, she would then pick up the phone and be as intimidating as a Headmistress. Her conversational telephone ploys are a masterclass in gaming. But Greig also mines Ramsay's darker side such as her apparent coldness when a key client, an alcoholic, commits suicide. This reveals a hard shell and Plater adroitly explores the emotional cost of that.

Danusia Samal brings a wonderful quiet solidity to the part of Tessa the long-suffering PA who is repelled by Peggy's response here. Indeed the whole ensemble are perfectly pitched by Wilson.

Peggy for You (L-R) Trevor Fox, Tamsin Greig and Jos Vantyler in Peggy For You. © HELEN MAYBANKS

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