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Peggy for You – Hampstead Theatre

Tasmin Greig blazes her way through a biographical drama that questions what theatre is without really finding an answer, while seeming to reflect on the programming choices of Hampstead’s uneven 60th anniversary season

Tamsin Greig and Jos Vantyler in Peggy for You

Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations have been long-belated. Following the birthday itself (on 24th September 2019), a programme of four classic revivals was announced in January 2020 – a season comprised exclusively of plays that had their UK (or world) premiere on Hamsptead’s stage. Two years later, following pandemic interruptions, the final production – a sixth, additional play (added along with The Memory of Water) from the vault, dubbed a ‘Hampstead Theatre Original’ – has completed its run.

Though the season would have originally lasted under a year – and only in the larger of Hampstead’s two spaces – it does feel like quite a long time has been spent looking back at the past, while the world peers uncertainly into the future. There is certainly merit in reappraising old favourites – and indeed, new productions can make compelling claims for relatively unknown works’ longevity and value. Yet, having been able to see three of the six anniversary productions, I remain rather unconvinced by the reasoning behind some of the programming. Watching Peggy for You especially, I couldn’t help but think of the now-familiar spin on a traditional adage: nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Partly the issue seems to have been the choices of the plays themselves. A thrilling season of powerful, overlooked works was surely possible given the wealth of plays to choose from. Instead though, the plays selected tended to be safe yet somehow simultaneously alienating. By far the most successful production I saw was Sam Yates’ precise staging of Tennessee Williams’ The Two Character Play – masterfully performed by Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn. Yet this was still undeniably strange – relying on the author’s name to draw audiences to something that then held them at arm’s length. Followed up by Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother – in an unfortunately bland and lacklustre production – what seemed to be linking the plays together was a fundamental dourness. (I cannot comment on the productions themselves, but Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water and to a lesser extent Alfred Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man share some of these gloomier themes too.) Even the tonally light Peggy for You culminates with the sudden shock of suicide (compared to ‘night Mother’s interest in its banality).

Any greater organising principle, beyond their presence in a 60-year back catalogue, seems hard to identify. They seem bound together by an underlying nostalgia, with relatively little thought given to their timeliness (particularly in the cases of ‘night Mother and Peggy for You) – somewhat odd, given the contemporary bent of their Downstairs studio space, ostensibly a new writing venue. In the main house meanwhile, productions played with relatively little obvious self-justification. At times it felt like Hampstead was laying claim to a classic they had premiered (The Dumb Waiter particularly), asserting (rightly) a part in British theatre history. Yet I often felt that a better celebration would look forward (as well as back). It comes as a relief that Hampstead’s coming main stage season is comprised entirely of new works.

Danusia Samal, Tamsin Greig and Trevor Fox in Peggy for You

I arrived at the theatre for Peggy for You with many of these concerns already formed in my mind. Yet, unfamiliar with the play, I was surprised to find it somehow responding to many of my thoughts quite directly.

Alan Plater’s 1999 play about the real literary agent Peggy Ramsay, who counted J.B. Priestley, Eugène Ionesco and David Hare – to name only a few – among her clients, is a frothy comedy that marks a substantial diversion from the grim and doom-laden plays staged during 2021. It is light, powered by Greig’s acerbic wit, while Richard Wilson’s focused direction keep it moving onwards. It already has sprinklings of meta-drama, which Greig occasionally embellishes with the occasional glance askance at the audience.

‘What is a play’ is the central question that drives Peggy for You, especially in the first half, when a new writer called Simon (a brilliantly nervy Josh Finan) extrapolates a theoretical challenge from Peggy’s offhanded appraisal of his work as ‘not really a play’. This minor quest to discover that elusive quality of being a play is the quiet motor, keeping the drama moving slowly forward. Yet questioning stories and their forms does not drive the characters towards searching, elemental, humanitarian concerns – as it does in Annie Baker’s The Antipodes or even, more implicitly, in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns. Instead, it generates a patina of wry irony. It is part of the fun, I suppose, that conversations about the qualifying criteria for a play are being had within (what seems to be, at least) a play. Instead where these meandering formal questions most profitably lead is a relatively brief consideration of the ethics of realism.

It could be argued that ‘night Mother was engaged in a not dissimilar discussion. Through the meticulous depiction of suicide planning – especially in the suicidal Jessie’s stage labour of accruing enough non-perishable goods to keep the titular mother stocked for the rest of her lifetime – Norman’s drama attempts to find and articulate a deep, existential truth. Perhaps it should be read as a diagnosis of intergenerational malaise – younger generations feeling like they no longer wish to inhabit the world made for them by their parents, though Jessie spends much of her time caring for her mother, and building her world for her. Yet Norman’s methodology is somewhat in conflict with contemporary concerns and guidance about depictions of suicide and suicidal ideation in art. The unflinching, hard stare approach is potentially dangerous – especially in naturalistic descriptions or depictions of suicide methods. To these, we can add age-old (though highly debatable) critiques of realism as a stultifying, static mode, to which the audience are only passive observers – which ‘night Mother seeks to refute – though I am not sure Roxana Silbert’s production succeeded.

Peggy for You’s treatment of realism is rather different, characterised by a tendency to separate the realist and the real. The play signals how it bypasses actual events in the line ‘Any play about a real person should be a pack of lies’ – a statement which sums up the Peggy onstage, while hiding the real Peggy behind a veil of paradoxical logic. Where naturalist realisms – particularly the tribunal play, or other verbatim theatres – often contend that the accretion of true details helps to reveal an overall truth, here Plater offers a wry opposite: make up enough lies and the character will come to life as they should be.

Trevor Fox and Tamsin Greig in Peggy for You

The play’s meta flourishes have been present since its first performances in 1999, yet Wilson’s staging strikingly reflects on Hampstead’s own 60th anniversary season. It is hard to know exactly how deliberately intended these effects are, functioning as a strange retraction or self-critique. Most glaring is the moment when Ramsay berates someone at the top of the National Theatre for programming an entire season of old plays – with no new writing. She is invited to see Uncle Vanya that evening, wryly critiquing the aesthetic richness and dramaturgical paucity of productions that have ‘built the entirety of Russia’ in the set while the character drama remains stodgy. Peggy is hardly a singular authoritative voice in the play – the ending particularly reading as a partly sympathetic critique of her callousness – though the criticism of elaborate set design as anathema to good drama seems in curious tension with James Cotterill’s immaculate office set, which is stuffed with reams of papers and binders, and borders on indistinguishable from the real thing. By boxing them into a rectangle, it does have the effect of making the scene feel a little remote. Meanwhile, Hampstead staged Uncle Vanya, in a rather excellent production, as recently as 2019. Perhaps this only adds to the irony?

Elsewhere in the play, Plater voices a case for doing plays again. An older writer – Henry – argues that he does not make money from writing new plays, only from companies staging his old ones. It is an understandable case – though it does not hold for long-dead writers like Chekhov and Shakespeare, or most of this season in fact. Of the six playwrights represented, only Marsha Norman and Shelagh Stephenson are still alive.

Successful writer Philip, when asked what a play is by Peggy, claims that they are messages to the future – arguing that they encapsulate what life was like at the time they were written, implicit state of the nation dramas that inform us of the details, emotions and detritus of life at a particular moment. This is immediately complicated by the fact that Peggy for You was written in 1999 but set on a single day in the 1960s; which time is contained within Plater’s capsule? Philip’s notion is intriguing, but fundamentally quite bleak – suggesting that plays are merely repositories of historical information. It flattens plays into rigid, fixed objects – assuming them to be impervious to directorial interpretation, or variance in audience tastes. It certainly seems the point of view of a certain type of writer, though Peggy for You does not necessarily agree with Philip. His implicit view that the crux of good drama is archivism does chime a little with the production’s surrounding context; the play is arguably here because it shows what Hampstead Theatre was up to two decades ago.

Josh Finan and Tamsin Greig in Peggy for You

It is difficult to get too het up about these meta-questions while actually watching the play though, carried as it is by the consistently fantastic work of its cast. Tamsin Greig blazes through the play, Peggy’s acid-tongue dispensing withering asides at a startling rate. The role is the structural heart of the play – dominating a little too much even – and Peggy is rarely offstage, rendering the other parts clearly supporting in their function. However, there is brilliant work being done elsewhere – especially by Josh Finan, conveying naïve optimism, and Danusia Samal as the put-upon secretary Tessa, whose name Peggy has not been bothered to learn. Tessa particularly represents the human cost of Peggy’s blustery, rather unempathetic personality. She is on stage almost constantly too, quietly carrying out a near-endless slew of administrative tasks. Samal is phenomenally restrained in the play’s final moments – her quiet grief channelling a gush of emotion into a previously arid play, exposing Peggy’s emotional hollowness by contrast.

With 60 years of drama to draw on, it is hard to feel that this season has played to Hampstead’s strengths enough. It ends on an entertaining crowd-pleaser, but the play’s purpose seems uncertain – internally and externally. It neither advocates for theatre as a site of pure entertainment, nor particularly for ethical purpose. This ultimate hesitation perhaps mirrors Peggy for You’s other driving question, after ‘What is a play’: why does Peggy Ramsay do it? The job has left her cruel and ruthless, though it is often fun. Like Plater’s Peggy, though not as outrageous it thinks it is, the play ends by casting doubt over whether fun is justification enough.

Peggy for You

Written by Alan Plater, Directed by Richard Wilson, Design by James Cotterill, Lighting by Johanna Town, Sound by Tingying Dong, Starring Josh Finan, Trevor Fox, Tamsin Greig, Danusia Samal, Jos Vantyler
Reviewed 19th January 2022

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