Theatre: Quite the drama queen

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MAUREEN LIPMAN contributes greatly to the gaiety of nations, but sometimes - particularly when she plays ditzy American characters (in the work, say, of Neil Simon) - there's a faint sense that she is condescending to the part.

Happily, she would never dare to patronise the role she is currently assuming at the Hampstead. In Alan Plater's Peggy For You, La Lipman impersonates the legendary real-life play agent - the doyenne and the diva of her profession - Margaret (Peggy) Ramsay, the woman whose clients were a roll call of the greats of postwar British drama.

For all the undoubted skill of her comic timing, Lipman is fundamentally miscast. It's like watching Dame Edith Evans struggling to do an impression of Maureen Lipman. The latter's physical presence and rhythms are uptight and anxious. Ramsay's performance of herself was one of negligent, effortless superiority - a brilliant parade of tactical scattiness. Lipman dutifully captures the mannerisms: the walk that resembles an ostrich trying to avoid landmines; the abstracted warming of the bare flesh above her pop- socks before the fire; the imperious, free-associative telephone technique that is as brilliant, in its field, as Glenn Gould's at the piano. But if the spirit of the woman comes through here, it is mostly thanks to the wit and the shapeliness of Plater's script.

Directed by Robin Lefevre, Peggy For You takes a life-in-the-day-of approach to the material. And when this becomes clear, you wonder excitedly which day it will plump for. Will it be the day that she had rumpy-pumpy on the chaise longue with Ionesco (having got her hands on more than just his rhinoceros) or will it, for example, be the day that the young Simon Callow walked into her life and she fell passionately in love?

Set in her Goodwin's Court offices in the late Sixties, this very entertaining play offers us a generic day in which Ramsay's ruthlessly Romantic philosophy of life and of art is illustrated as she deals with four different types of playwright at various critical stages of their career.

The bearded Northern dramatist (Richard Platt), whose decision to ditch her shocks Peggy much more than the suicide that day of a written-out drunken David Mercer-style dramatist, argues that her relationship with her clients describes an all-too-predictable trajectory: the championing of an unknown until he wins a "Most Promising" gong; then urging him to live dangerously and avoid marriage and happiness so as to keep in touch with his inner demon; then - if he starts to be successful - losing interest in him. With Tom Espiner's neophyte playwright (his first work called, Shades of Nothingness) and with Richard Platt's Henry, a dramatist not unlike Christopher Hampton, whose success and equability irritate her, we see the truth of the Northerner's diagnosis.

She set impossible standards and was impossible, but as she airily asks, "Who would want to be possible?" Properly critical of some aspects of her methods, the play also richly shows that being represented by Peggy Ramsay must have been as enthralling, inspiring and fraught with risk as being taught by Miss Jean Brodie.

Paul Taylor

To 15 Jan (0171-722 9301). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper