Review: Theatre Our Betters Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
A dialect coach faces a tall order with Our Betters, the Somerset Maugham comedy revived now by Michael Rudman at Chichester. Written in 1915 and first produced in New York two years later, the play takes a sour look at the American colony within English high society. Like a Henry James story redrafted by a cut-price Congreve, it presents a world where American heiresses barter their fortunes for a nice title. The glamorous, tuft-hunting hostess Pearl (Kathleen Turner) has married a baronet who wisely gives her parties - and the entire play - a wide berth. One of her American friends is a Duchesse; another is a Principessa. They have gained a dollop of supposed class; what they fondly think they have lost is all trace of their vulgar native accent.

Rudman's production aims to convey the diversity of the grating hybridisations of sound that result. William Hootkin's excellent Thornton Clay - the stout, permanent bachelor kind of social climber who delights in inveigling invitations from the most impregnably lofty English families and then promptly dropping them - approaches the vowel in the word "clothes" with the showiness of someone who has learnt to walk on stilts round a mantrap. Pearl's determinedly clenched pronunciations - "errises" for heiresses and "kirrikter" for character - make one's buttocks ache in sympathy. All of which is good fun, though there are some puzzling points. To play these ex-pats, Rudman uses a mix of American and non-American actors. Splendid in other respects, Rula Lenska's duchesse seems to have wiped Chicago from her tones with a thoroughness suggestive of death and complete reincarnation, while Arthur Fenwick - Pearl's elderly, doting admirer who keeps her in the funds necessary to make a splash as a hostess - appears, in Nigel Davenport's gruffly amiable performance, like a local lad that "done good" rather than an entrepreneur who has escaped here from the snobberies of New York.

It's an evening of awkwardnesses and genuine pleasures. You sometimes wonder, watching this entertaining but physically ungainly production, why Chichester bothers to have an epic thrust-stage given its decided partiality for proscenium-arch pieces. After all, you wouldn't take over Lords for a season of croquet matches. Likewise, the immensely winning Ms Turner, who clearly has what it takes to project Pearl's "force of character, wit, unscrupulousness and push" is hobbled, until the final act, in costumes that make a trip-up and a sprained ankle look an imminent danger.

The play shows how Pearl's ingenue sister is disabused of her dazzled view of English high society and of Anglo-American relations when Pearl is caught dallying in a locked summer house with the duchesse's toyboy. Like Ms Turner's performance, the play comes into its own in the last act when whatever distaste one may have felt for this kind of hostess is outweighed by the delight she takes in the shameless chutzpah and skill of her efforts, in the wake of sexual exposure, at social damage limitation.

Her stratagems involve calling in a much-in-demand, camp-as-they-come dancing instructor, a role that gives Paul Stewart the chance to revel in one of those last-minute scene-stealing cameos as a mincing Mussolini of the dance floor. Whisking the duchesse through a two-step, he tells her to look as though she has a knife in her garter that she would use on him if he glanced at another woman. Minimal risk of bloodshed there...

In rep to 27 Sept. Booking: 01243 781312

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