THEATRE / The age of disbelief: Paul Taylor reviews The Schoolmistress and Dangerous Corner, both in Chichester

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The Independent Culture
Joan Collins and toyboy, yes; Patricia Routledge and toyboy . . . ? Well, you can judge for yourself now at Chichester where, in a spectacular instance of age-blind casting, Matthew Francis's dodgy revival of The Schoolmistress invites us to believe that Routledge's character has recently got spliced to a toff played by Guy Henry, an actor some 30 years her junior. It also asks us to credit that Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison, theatreland's premier oldster-combo, are the parents of a 16-year-old girl. You can accuse Chichester of many things, but disloyalty to the senior members of the profession is not one of them.

Matthew Francis's strenuously jolly production has its work cut out breathing comic life into Pinero's feeble, underdriven farce. Its eponymous character is the principal of a girls' school who moonlights as a comic opera star in order to fund her husband's lifestyle. But the play doesn't begin to convince you that disaster would strike if he were to find out, no more than it persuades you that there is actual cause for alarm when the girls blackmail him, in his wife's absence, into throwing a wedding party for one of the pupils who has clandestinely married - a function accidentally graced by her Rear-Admiral father.

Farce needs to be propelled by genuine panic; this one is desperate, all right, but in quite the wrong sense. There's compensation from the performances, especially that of Victoria Hasted, who is all toothy mischief and sexy charm as the bespectacled pupil-teacher, and of Michael Denison as the rumbling, puce-faced Scottish Admiral. But though Guy Henry as the bounderish husband races about like some distempered giraffe, the farcical situations he's pitched into lack urgency. It's typical that the character is left alone with four nubile schoolgirls, and hanky-panky doesn't cross his mind. And if not for that, why set a farce in a girls' school?

At the end of the first half, Routledge makes a sensational appearance on a fire hoist bedecked in an operatic rig-out that suggests a cross between Brunnhilde and Mrs Slocombe. In the comic-opera finale, she gets the chance to show off her vibrant singing voice. In between, you feel she would have been perfect casting for the part - once.

Keith Baxter's revival at the Minerva of Dangerous Corner has the chic and the instinct for shock that made his recent production of Rope such a success. Set in the aftermath of a supper party, Priestley's play is about two alternative realities: in one, an accidental slip leads to devastating revelations and suicide; in the other, it is bypassed to sustain illusion and fragile happiness.

Beautifully performed, Baxter's version contains some haunting adjustments. For example, it's the tune 'Beautiful Dreamer', not the wedding march, that is played by the musical cigarette box. The recurrence of this theme, and the well-judged lighting and sound effects that re- evoke the past, intensify our sense of the nostalgia that is, the characters learn, propped up by false pretences.

'The Schoolmistress' runs in repertory to 24 September; 'Dangerous Corner' runs to 6 August. Box-office: 0243 781312

(Photograph omitted)