Maud (Stephanie Cole) lives with her middle-aged son, Maurice (Allan Corduner), in a mock-Tudor house in Bristol. White-haired Maud now talks, in authentic Bristol dialect, to a small TV with the sound off, as if confiding to friends. The two share a taste for exotic cocktails and badly defrosted TV dinners.
You expect Peter Nichols's play to be maudlin comedy, with the inevitable institutionalisation of Maud's doting old eccentric and the selling off of the family manor to scheming sibling inheritors: Hedley, an MP and TV celebrity, and Queenie (Miranda Foster), newly arrived from California.
These two are meant as satirical figures, an opportunity for Nichols to comment on the state of the nation, but the play was written in 1979 and the political references are often jarringly anachronistic. Hedley's planned demolition of the Tudor manor is a metaphor for the modernisation of theme-park England and his pompous hectoring is intended to be funny, but instead he comes across as tedious and dated. So, too, Queenie, a health junkie who diets on grapefruit and consommé yet smokes continually. The anachronisms creak.
Nichols's comedy, originally commissioned by Bristol Old Vic, is full of nostalgia for the city's bygone post-war age, and the director, Stephen Unwin, has kept the play set in the late Seventies. But whereas some allusions are curios, or politically incorrect, others are racist. Queenie's diatribe on "dinky town" – "You see all the Indians doing the work" – is, 30 years on, quaint but offensive. At least Hedley talks of building a multiracial Britain, acknowledging that "Bristol was built on slavery". Her comments that "a Jewish nose is better than no nose at all" and that New Orleans is "a lot of senile old spades playing to tourists" went totally unremarked upon by the older Malvern matinée audience.
There are moments of subtle characterisation, especially Maurice, played with dignified restraint by Simon Shepherd. The clinch between Maurice and his twin sister suggests childhood incest, and there's also a tragic dimension in emotionally stunted Queenie's revelations of sexual abuse by her (now-deceased) father.
In Maud, Nichols has created a classic comic role and Stephanie Cole, who is unaffected and naturalistic, is a tour de force.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440 000; www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk) to Sat; Rose Theatre, Kingston (08712 301 552; www.rosetheatrekingston.org) 30 Sept to 11 Oct
Peter Rose, researcher, WorcesterReuse content