SAYERS, SAYING IT FOR WORKING WOMEN
Here’s a treat: first half in Venice (with a glorious Canaletto backdrop) and the second, after some elegant Jermyn set-changing, in a London playwright’s chic flat, complete with trumpet-mouthpiece bakelite phone and cigarette-box. It’s 1940: there’s a touch of Noel-Coward wit at the expense of writers and the theatre, some arguments that are more like a combative George Bernard Shaw, and even – in a jokey throwaway – a passing homage to Ibsen. But at its centre is something different: a blazingly witty feminist assault not only on patriarchal assumptions but on the cult of feelings-first. “Romance is overrated, but I suppose you can’t have a third act without it”.
Dorothy L Sayers’ only light stage comedy has been pretty much forgotten since its wartime launch in the first year of WW2. We know her of course from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and – less prominently now – from her religious works. Here, though, find all the witty teasing structure of the detective novels , but released from the need to have a hero. The result is a feast of deadly observation of sexual mores and a laughing, sisterly female revolt against a battened-down morality and traditional presumptions about wifehood . Above all here is a hymn to the importance, in any life, of work and achievement. Feelings, even the tenderest loves, are not enough.
“Everybody hates work but it’s awful to be without it’ affirms even the shallowest and most hedonistic character, Lydia (Emily Barber), pining to get back to the stage after running away with our antihero ,the writer Godfrey, after “three flops and a fight with management”. As the story goes on will encounter an even sterner work ethic in the apparently dutiful wife he left for her.
In Venice the guilty couple are restive, she lounging bored in an elegant pyjama suit while Godfrey (Alan Cox) struggles with his latest romantic novel and the creeping advance of middle age. The loyal secretary, a nicely enigmatic Bethan Cullinane, smooths both their paths. Both are differently frustrated because his wife Edith has not having filed the divorce papers, claiming to be “too busy”. This, Coward-style, leads to dangerously mellow reminiscence from Godfrey about Edith’s good qualities: cue a shouting-match, the hurling out of the window of his treasured “presentation inkwell” , and an irate gondolier whose inkstained passenger turns out to be an old friend from Lydia’s West End world. Karen Ascoe’s Mrs Mintlaw by the way is hilariously observed: Sayers knew that world well.
We meet more theatre people in the London flat after the interval, when both the couple have secretly fled back to London and are inevitably going to meet there. The hostess, not that she wants either of them, is a successful comedy playwright, found elegantly flatter-coaxing her leading man (Daniel Burke, playing gigolo-smooth and vain). He wants to cut a few lines. Brilliantly, she agrees and says that yes, its a difficult moment to express – whereon he wants it back. There’s an ebullient producer (Jim Findley) ) getting the news that an elderly star is happy to play the vicar in the new play but asks that the name of his church be changed from St Athanasius – ‘It’s his teeth, you see’. Into all this merry thespianism plods Godfrey, baffled to hear that his dull old wife Edith is staying at this address. Which she is, because – kaboom! – she herself is the acclaimed playwright. Under a pseudonym, having the whale of a time with one hit running and another pending, the very play in which his runaway mistress wants a part. So of course foxy Lydia turns up too…
It could be farce, but for Dorothy Sayers’ point, sharpened with comic teeth, about the kind of man rampant in the 1930s and for a fair while afterwards who is horrified by any sign of female independent success. “Do you mean you wrote that play WHILE we were married?” “Well, you were always away”. When he has to decide whether he will return to his wife or stay with Lydia, he is confronted by the fact that one wont give up writing , and the other wont abandon acting, and he can’t bear eithr idea. What makes him even more furious is Edith’s refusal to be upset by his desertion. “Need you maintain this pretence of not giving a damn?”. But she honestly doesn’t. Her identity, her centre, is in her newfound work. “I can’t believe a woman could feel like that!..I hate to see you making a wreck of your life”. Her pals meanwhile float in and out, excited by the buzz of the new play. She’s just fine: a walking, working revenge against all his kind.
Godfrey, of course, is a caricature, designed to be entertainingly humiliated, and Alan Cox makes the most of it: a lovely moustached harrumpher, flatfooted and wrongfooted not only by the sharper women but the blithe theatre-folk who “don’t have much time for reading” his bestsellers. There is a part of the third act when you sense a little flattening – the two women, working out their mutual feelings and what should become of him. But as this absurd almost maternal discussion continues it heats up, and Sayers’ passion for females as workers, identities beyond romance and wifehood, continues to be strikingly refreshing.
When Godfrey – and his secretary, and the producer – have returned to join the two women, the play returns to the glorious pattern-making of farce, and rollicks to a Wildean conclusion. I cite the more famous playwrights not out of disrespect to Sayers’ utterly female vision and wit, but because this shows how efficiently, deliberately, she slotted into the dramatic idioms of her time (the opening scene sets character and situation with a real Rattigan elegance). And because it makes me wish she had given us more like this, not just a version of a Wimsey story. But thanks to Tom Littler, the director who is just leaving his triumphant spell at the Jermyn, for finding it and giving it back to us. The Godfreys may be scarcer now, or have gone sulkily underground. But we need to remember them, and salute a grandmothers’ generation who had them to deal with.
Box office. Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 21 Sept