A none too happy family affair at Haymarket

Review by Paul Nelson

 

The 1927 Edna Ferber, George S Kaufman play The Royal Family at the Haymarket Theatre, is constantly revived in the States. They must know something that director Peter Hall doesn't know.

The play is an obvious skit on the Drew Barrymores, the royal family of Broadway, but it fails in its attempt at true satire largely, I suspect, because when it was first dreamed up, Ethel B threatened the Law, so the play became a damp squib.

From then on it prevaricated between a tribute to a great actress, Fanny Cavendish, and her family, and timidly suggesting that a rank outsider, a commoner as it were, would dare to presume to marry into Royalty. The Cinderella story that is the backbone of all Broadway smash hits.*

Well the play doesn't work in this country. It might have during the era of the Terrys, the Hawtreys, and so forth, but we now no longer possess that lineage of families, unless you take the fragmented Redgraves into the equation or any other actors who are desperately drumming up interest in their offspring.

Neither does the play give so much scope for histrionics. It is as if Kaufman was watching his back all the time and not daring to spit out the satire he wanted. Ferber on the other hand, was keen on depicting the dynasty, and didn't she do that endlessly? Think Giant.
The play falls between several stools therefore, and gives a real pain to the casting director. He too fails.

Take Peter Bowles. An excellent actor. One who is expected by audiences to be the upright Brit. Here he has been cast as a failed American actor flogging a dead horse of a play for his comeback. The audience's faces, along with their anticipation, fell.

Take Julia McKenzie. An actress not noted for her originality but for recreating musical roles played primarily by others, which she does superbly. Here, with no template, she is at sea. Take Harriet Walter. Lo, an actress who can take a part in her teeth and shake the guts out of it. What happens? She too flounders.

However, we have the juveniles to whom we can look forward. One of the two upstarts marrying into the family, Perry, Robert Petkoff, and the youngest member of the Cavendish family, Gwen, Emily Blunt. Alas, neither of them is believable. All Perry has to do is come onstage and explode with a zealous love and be charming, holding his own during an argument. All Gwen has to do is be bewitching and ultimately sly when she decides she is not going to be Mrs Housewife and mother, but Mrs Broadway Star and mother. Both parts are thrown to the winds, possibly because they have realised that the whole evening is one of those cosy nights in the theatre when, as in the Binkie Beaumont days, you knew you could relax with a box of chocs and spend an evening in the company of your favourite stars in a suitable, unshocking vehicle. These two must have felt that were somehow outsiders.

Well, you nearly get that old fashioned civilised evening of the past.
Judi Dench, as the matriarch of the Cavendish family Fanny, commands the stage whenever she is on it. Her delivery of her more devastating lines are an object lesson to many a younger artiste, and they would do well to study her technique and learn from it. To hell with it, I'll call her by her title, Dame Judi Dench. If you go to see the play you will know why.

Fortunately for her and us there is a fairly large cast so she is not left high and dry. Quite apart from the most attentive household servants, Jo and Della, John Griffiths and Joy Richardson, who make certain they get their laughs, there is a brilliantly amusing and moving performance by Philip Voss as Oscar Wolfe, the theatrical entrepreneur, always with his eye open on the next chance to make a buck.

Capping the evening's comedy, there is a performance by Toby Stephens as Anthony Cavendish, the John Barrymore of the family. A silent movie actor hell raiser, a one-man rat pack. The authors have even given him a duelling scene, yes, even all the way down the stairs in true Don Juan tradition. Stephens, not one for hanging about, takes up the challenge (and foil) and glitters.

Therefore, while the evening doesn't exactly stop traffic, and Peter Hall can be blamed for most of its shortcomings, the evening is not a dead loss. It would be a shame for you to miss Dame Judi, the breathtaking twenties chic costumes, the duplex apartment set, and the other goodies I have mentioned.

*There was an attempt at making this play into a musical, calling it The Royal Family of Broadway, the usual Cinderella story of the Commoner invading the Court, which so far has failed to ignite.

The Royal Family cast.
Della, Joy Richardson; Jo, John Griffiths; Hallboy, Andrew Sloane; McDermott, Richard Ryan; Herbert Dean, Peter Bowles; Kitty Dean, Julia McKenzie; Gwen Cavendish, Emily Blunt; Perry Stewart, Robert Petkoff; Fanny Cavendish, Judi Dench; Oscar Wolfe, Philip Voss; Julie Cavendish, Harriet Walter; Anthony Cavendish, Toby Stephens; Gilbert Marshall, Peter Blythe; Miss Peake, Penny Ryder; Removal Men, Tony Brunt/Jamie Hayes.
Directed by Peter Hall. Designed by Anthony Ward. Costume Supervisors Christine Rowland/Louise Dodd.