The handbag from hell

"A beastly woman, vulgar, swayed entirely by money and position and really so very pleased with herself. She's not the sort of woman you'd give a teddy bear to." Which poor unfortunate has inspired Betty Marsden, currently wowing them in Absolute Hell at the National, to such heights of loathing? Margaret Thatcher? No, Oscar Wilde's legendary gorgon from The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell. The big problem with the role is that everyone is waiting for the play's most famous line, etched into theatrical memory by Dame Edith Evans. Upon hearing that her daughter's intended is uncertain of his parentage and was discovered in "a handbag", Dame Edith pauses, absorbing the sheer vulgarity of the news, and then hurls herself at the phrase in a tone of appalled horror rising from basso profundo into the stratosphere. Dame Judi Dench believes that audiences think you've failed if you don't go for the line. "Once you're over the handbag line you have a ball. Until that moment, your heart's in your mouth." At one performance, on Boxing Day, the shower in her dressing- room broke, sending scalding hot water everywhere. "I was so shaken that I went onstage and cut the entire episode. A couple of days later I received a letter from a member of the audience who said that I'd ruined the whole of her Christmas." Barbara Leigh-Hunt (left) is the latest to tackle the line, though an actress of her stature is unlikely to spend time shillyshallying about previous interpretations. Expect the unexpected.

Old Vic, Waterloo Rd, London SE1 (0171-928 7616)