Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Mid-calf, navy blue day dress with pearl buttons by Victor Stiebel. Dove-grey tweed jacket and fox stole by House of Hartnell. Hat by Elsa Schiaparelli. Perfect for luncheons, jaunts around town and spying on fascists. A jaunt into wartime London in the company of Lady Pamela More perfectly attired with deliciously clipped consonants.
Lady Pamela, fashion columnist for the Times, and socialite has little interest in politics and the clouds that are gathering in 1936. And certainly not in Hitler who she considers to have no fashion sense and as for that moustache… her considered view is it resembles nothing so much as the ‘bristles on a toothbrush’.
However, having accompanied Wallis Simpson for a week for a feature on her wardrobe, Pamela finds herself recruited by MI5 to keep notes on Wallis and Edward VIII, suspected to be colluding with the German Embassy, and finds herself in a world of adventure, espionage and intrigue.
Underbelly Cowgate provides the perfect setting – a vault with a corrugated iron roof. We enter to a wailing air raid siren – powerful for even those of us who weren’t alive at the time. We could be in an air raid shelter and it immediately sets the scene.
Written by Sarah Sigal the play is produced by the all female company Fluff – formed by a group of drama school graduates in 2004 frustrated at the lack of roles for women. It is refreshing to see a story centering on a vivacious confident woman who takes on a role she thought was only for men. That of being a spy. The writing is assured and lively; clear, sharp and funny (not to mention thoroughly researched in the matter of the designers of the day) but also increases in depth as the story progresses. It moves neatly between the early days of the war when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship with the Nazis was seen as a very real threat to national security and 1936 when Wallis Simpson and the then King were becoming rather more close than anyone in government was comfortable with. Against this backdrop Lady Pamela is gradually drawn in and begins to see the enormity of the situation. Sigal handles deftly the obvious parallels with the rise of the right wing during the 1930s and the present day without falling into the trap of heavy handed portentiousness.
Rebecca Dunn’s brisk no nonsense approach and deliciously clipped consonants as Lady Pamela More add to the sense that we have been transported back some seventy years. At the same time she uses both voice and physicality to create the cast of characters. And, for those we don’t meet (and some we do) the perfectly timed asides on their choice of apparel sums them up in an instant and gives us an immediate picture.
The director, Jessica Beck, makes good use of the space and creates a sense of the many different places that Pamela finds herself in from the office at the Times, a street, the German Embassy in London and her own home. Given that Lady P is so concerned with being correctly attired she might have enjoyed a little more variety in costume – perhaps a different hat sometimes or an evening jacket for the embassy.
There are a few places where there is a little too much prose and description that could be replaced with action – at which Dunn excels. A quick move, a startled look and we are there with her without any additional description.
The set is simple if a little cramped on this particular stage; however, the nature of the Fringe is that will always be compromises in space and the auditorium is just the right size for an intimate piece such as this. The stage does present some slight problems – it is low and the audience seating flat, making for some sightline problems at times when Lady P is sitting; it is also uncovered so her high heels become very noisy losing a few of the lines. And these are lines you don’t want to miss.
It might be an historical story but Lady Pamela’s conclusion ‘there is a danger in taking peace for granted’ is bang up to date.