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FringeReview UK 2022

Love All

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Feminist Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Tom Littler, Designed by Louie Whitemore, Costume Designer Annett Black, Lighting Design Chris McDonnell, Composer & Sound Designer Tom Attwood, Movement Direction Imy Wyatt Corner, Associate Designer Liz Wright

Production Manager Lucy Mewis-McKerrow, Stage Manager Anna Townley, ASM Jordan Littlewood, Production Carpenter Tom Baum, Scenic artist Emily Carne, Production Technician Emily Rodtborg, Hair & Makeup Julie Burnett.

Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, PR David Burns..

Till October 8th


Note the balcony. We start conventionally in Venice. Emily Barber’s bored, slightly spoilt actress Lydia Hillington flounces on a sofa, eighteen months after having given everything up for romantic novelist Geoffrey Daybrook (Alan Cox) who’s left his wife for her, as she might inspire him as his dull little wife never did. But hasn’t. And Lydia hates cold, heat, mosquitoes…

Indeed the whole first act of Dorothy L Sayers’1938 play Love All promises an elegant yawn at itself, but you quickly realise something’s amiss. And it’s why Tom Littler’s made it his own final production for Jermyn Street Theatre, though two more follow before he leaves.

Why for instance is Bethan Cullinane’s devoted secretary Mary Birch first seen craning out of a window, in fluent Italian? We might half-forget that, but the finale doesn’t. Even though that’s in a London office, away from cod-Italian clichés. Sayers has first-rate theatrical craft. It’s Cullinane’s understated, secret-looks Mary Birch who facilitates the couple’s flight – each without telling each other – to a London office.

Love All receives its first London production in 80 years, following a packed Cambridge production in February. The creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, Gaudy Night and those Dante translations many of us never got through, here turns those 1920s and 30s drawing-room comedies on their heads.

A flung inkpot has brought Karen Ascoe’s demi-gushing Judith Mintlaw, wife of a producer to meet stage-bereft Lydia and they elope to the Smoke in a platonic Private Lives moment, just as Geoffrey flees, again through Miss Birch’s agency. “Discretion is part of my job” she repeats over and over. Though she’s devoted to Geoffrey’s writing at the least.

When in the second act in that same London office Lydia trolls out the ‘behind every great man…’ truism she’s blunted by the woman whose husband she ran off with: “And every great woman has had some man or other in front of her, tripping her up.”

Leah Whittaker’s Janet Reed is no longer the dull little wife  Geoffrey left behind. Besieged by actors, secretary, producers, she’s the toast of the moment with a second hit bursting on her hands. Using other of her names she’s revealed as the blazing new playwright. Lydia wants in, even now.

Janet Reed bears striking resemblances to Present Laughter’s  Liz Essendine, complete with secretary – second of Karen Ascoe’s roles as Sheila Coppingham (a contrast she relishes, all steel-tipped loyalty, swatting personal-angle reporters away over the phone). But knowing Coward’s work was written a year later in 1939 gives Sayers another edge, since this comedy is more intriguing. Oddly Coward’s secretary is named Monica Reed.

Whittaker’s gifted with many one-liners; after the situation smiles of the first act, the farce of the second and third play neatly on shock reunions. There’s a touch of Connie Booth in the way Whittaker glides assurance, dispatches everyone, and fairly purrs like an eight-cylinder Bentley driven by eco-elan. She certainly makes up for not being in the first half.

Barber’s allowed development too: gone is petulance, hello ambition, someone gasping for air coming home to sheer oxygen. Her elegant flit around characters, electron to Whittaker’s neutron, is a delight. Jim Findlay’s ebullient producer (and elegant arbiter) Henry Norton gets in quite a few more one-liners in a warm gust, and like Ascoe (as Judith) describes Geoffrey’s novels as “sweet books”, Geoffrey “a public entertainer in a way”. It underscores our suspicion – never actually stated – of who’s the better writer.

Focus shifts drastically from the novelist needing peace to compose to a professional woman in the eye of creativity and planning, throwing out promises and instructions in the way others twirl Strictly. If she could write her first play without her husband even noticing, Janet pens her second with every actor and producer crowding over her shoulder, till Stella bats them away. All but Daniel Burke’s indulged young lead Michael Selby, exuberantly gestural, helping himself to drinks and gifted a plot-point. Sayers shows shrewd generosity with small parts.

Sayers knew male sabotage from experience: shadows from her life enrich pin-pricks here. The theme here – that at least three women need professional fulfilment more than men – is more revolutionary than plays forty years on. It’s why Littler’s fascinated with its sheer subversion. Ignore drawing-room conventions, the Shavian savagery’s delicious because it goes beyond Shaw. Sayers’ feminism was singular: she refused gender politics. It doesn’t make her less revolutionary. Another reason to see this play.

Cox, expostulating mildly enough in the first act, is revealed – with a rough gear-change – as antediluvian. Though promising Lydia to divorce his wife, his wife’s been too busy to sign papers. This allows Sayers to anatomise Geoffrey’s flip-flops over what he thinks he needs: muses but not visibly slaving over socks. We’ve seen Geoffrey’s opposing Lydia resuming her career. That’s as nothing to his behaving as Henry says as “an unconvincing character in a book”, now wanting his wife to renounce and return. Cox takes this role on as a Sebastianesque straw blusterer, outmanouevered in a shower of poignards; then the women decide what to do with him.

This could be a Cicely-Gwendoline moment; the two call each other a few names first, fall out, bond. But it’s Cullinane’s Mary Birch, also arriving, they ask to arbitrate. And though we might think we see what’s coming, we don’t. Early on I marked Somerset Maugham’s short story The Treasure as model. If so, Sayers pulls out the set’s worn rug. I’d liked to have seen more of Cullinane’s character, though Mary’s given agency at the end.

It’s a flawless cast with several returning: Littler has the reach of a miniature repertory company; on that you can build anything.

Plot can wrench character. Sayers sets up one destination and – not quite convincingly – swerves. Given the way the first act builds, one feels another outcome, with an equally – and permanently – mollified male. It’s a psychological – not plot – misdirection.

Louie Whitemore’s clever double set – pink walls, massive Canaletto above a sofa and blue balcony stage-right give on to reveal bookshelves, that balcony gone and a London office with that worn carpet – all against Annett Black’s swirl of period costumes, including striking red shawl for Whittaker, bright elegance for Barber and Ascoe’s Judith role. Whitemore’s long attuned to making the diminutive JST look a west-end pros-arch, and Chris McDonnell’s lighting features soft fades allowing gleam-outs, contrasting intense sunshine with a rainy season. Tom Attwood provides period music and a beautifully-cued set of phone-rings and noises-off.

Another first-rank revival from JST, specialists in rediscoveries – Granville Barker’s Agnes Colander for one, though as with Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered there’s no other theatre involved. Littler and his team facilitate a deceptive revolutionary blast: a fitting end to Littler’s tenure, before he takes up those in-the-round challenges of the Orange Tree.