Arts: Greta expectations

THEATRE: EASY VIRTUE; FESTIVAL THEATRE, CHICHESTER
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The Independent Culture
AS A theatrical heroine, the "woman with a past" looked to be without a future when Noel Coward reinvented the type and sent her on a valedictory swan round the drawing room in his early comedy Easy Virtue, first produced on Broadway in 1925. A caustic update of Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray, his play charts the upheaval caused when a glamorous divorcee marries into a stuffily orthodox and repressed county family, only to be subjected to lectures, snubs, odious "Christian" tolerance and - when her colourful past is unearthed - peevish castigation.

But whereas Pinero's heroine becomes, through her melodramatic suicide, the sacrificial victim to a set of values his play has guardedly questioned, Coward's Larita, an altogether cooler declassee figure, stylishly lambasts the self-satisfied insularity of her in-laws' household before making a pained exit on her own terms.

It's a plum role and, in Maria Aitken's assured and entertaining revival at Chichester, Greta Scacchi seizes it with sardonic aplomb. Sporting a chic bob and drop-dread elegant couture, she lets you see both Larita's wittily amused awareness of her head-turning effect and - to just the right understated degree - her growing distressed recognition that her marriage to empty, attractive John (Andrew Clover) is a bad mistake.

Scacchi departs from convention by playing Larita as a charismatic American (with a somewhat wandering accent) and this certainly reinforces a sense of the character's exotic outsider-status. But, given the period, you find yourself asking why the crusty Whittaker family maintain such a deafening silence on the question of her nationality. You also wonder whether it was absolutely necessary to deface Ms Scacchi with make-up that suggests a close kinship with the Bride of Frankenstein for the climactic scene where a defiant Larita tempestuously takes over the party from which she has been banned and leads the guests in an almost tribal performance of the "Black Bottom".

It can't be said that Easy Virtue is the most balanced of plays. The handicap of having a daughter-in-law who mopes about all day huddled in a fur reading Proust's Sodom and Gomorrah is seen as nothing compared to the converse stresses of being badgered to go out and watch relentless games of tennis.

The Whittaker family are far from subtly delineated and, playing the two sisters-in-law, Jenny Quayle and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh compound the problem by over-emphasising the already crude straight-talking Christian smugness of the one and the gallumphing herd-of-elephants eagerness of the other. But Wendy Craig's Mrs Whittaker expertly manages to colour little phrases such as "How nice" with every shade of censure. And there are appealing performances from Lou Gish as Sarah, John's broadminded former girlfriend and Michael Jayston who, as Colonel Whittaker, is Larita's smitten, ineffectual defender, being himself a man with quite a sizeable past.

Paul Taylor

Until 2 October. Booking: 01243 781312

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