This revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980s play is one of two productions running at the Menier at the moment, both directed by Trevor Nunn. It is the story of a theatrical tour guide who embellishes historical fact to entertain those who visit Fustion House (‘fusty old house’, in our minds).
The first scene is replayed four times across a fifteen minute slot, in which Miss Douffet makes the most of an Elizabethan legend on an old staircase, delivered in an exaggerated stage voice. Douffet is played by Felicity Kendal, who wears loud and vibrant clothes and has tattoos on her foot and ankle.
Her over-the-top style gets her in trouble twice, first with a tetchy historian who asks for her sources, then with a civil servant who commands her presence in the offices of the Preservation Society. This is the staid Miss Schoen, whose father was a German art publisher, but who hates theatrics. She’s played by Maureen Lipman, who is stiffly arch, especially in her exchanges with twittery secretary Petra Markham.
The turning point comes with a very unconvincing prop cat, and a wildly addictive drink which contains the herb lovage. It turns Miss Douffet almost human (and we discover her forename is Lettice), and allows Miss Schoen to unbend as she becomes more tipsy (and her forename is Charlotta). Lettice talks of her mother who played both Richard III and Falstaff – with utilisation of the same pillow for costume. Lotte tells of a bomb plot she and a boyfriend had in their youth to destroy the hated Shell Building.
The final act is bizarre, with Sam Dastor as a solicitor defending Miss Douffet (she engages him because his name is Bardolph, which suggests something rather different to the reserved man we see before us). It would spoil the fun to say why she has been arrested and charged, and we are caught up in an amusing piece of roleplay re-enacted for us in the final few minutes.
This is not a ground-breaking play, but it is acted well, and is a perfectly reasonable piece of entertainment. I liked the relative simplicity of the sets, which include a picture frame which showcases the sense of where we are (the exterior of Fustion House, the terraces of Earl’s Court), and found the performances on point for the ridiculous plot.