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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.

Peace is hell, darling

THEATRE; Absolute Hell National Theatre, London

COMPETITION results

The winner of last week's Smirnoff / Bond competition is Sally Giles of Cheshunt.

BOOK REVIEW / When dinosaurs ruled the stage

THE LOST SUMMER: THE HEYDAY OF THE WEST END THEATRE Charles Duff Nick Hern Books £18.99

THEATRE / Every picture tells a story: Paul Taylor on The Seagull, directed by John Caird, at the National

It's in the plays of Brecht, not Chekhov, that you expect to encounter alienation effects. A jolting, unscheduled interruption managed to break the spell, however, at the first night of John Caird's Olivier revival of The Seagull, when proceedings were brought to a halt by a large frame which got jammed in mid-flight from the stage. This was rotten luck, even if you felt, unworthily, that here was a classic case of a fine production paying the price for visual over-elaboration.

THEATRE / Of rhyme and good reason: Fiona Shaw is leading the cast and the National Theatre is expecting a full house. Which, given that they're staging a recital of Alexander Pope's mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock might raise a few eyebrows. As well it should, says Jasper Rees

Commercial radio boasts a classical music station and a classic rock station. Somehow, though, you can't see a station devoted solely to the recital of classic poetry getting off the ground and on to the air. It's not as if there isn't enough material to broadcast: it would probably take several weeks alone, allowing space for commercial breaks, to romp through The Faerie Queene or Don Juan. If they'd had the technology a century ago, perhaps it would have caught on, but Poetry FM - 'all the sonnets and more'? It's just not going to happen.

Outside Edge: When the show goes up in smoke, Alan Davies steps in

ONE OF the responsibilities of Alan Davies, the chief firefighter at the National Theatre, is to ensure there is no smoking back-stage. On opening nights, when the cast are at their most nervous, he'll turn a blind eye; on other nights, they see him coming and the fags are whipped behind their backs. But Davies is not a headmaster out to bust the bike-shed smokers; 'I love them all,' he says.

The battle for the soul of Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice II: A story of Passion], Recrimination], Book sales]: Starring Emma Tennant, British author of 'Pemberley' and Julia Barrett, American author of 'Presumption'

Currently gripping the literary world is this question: would Mrs Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice, ever discuss vinegar douches as a means of determining the sex of one's child at the dining table? 'Of course she would,' says Emma Tennant, author of Pemberley, the 'sequel' to Pride and Prejudice, published by Hodder and Stoughton this week. 'At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen says that Mrs Bennet went on being very vulgar and silly. If the subject being discussed at the table was childbirth, and whether or not an heir would be produced, this is exactly what Mrs Bennet would do.'

Show People / Gracious goodness . . .: Douglas Hodge

THE 19th-century doctor travelled to London every day on the three o'clock train from Dorset. Young ladies in the carriage could not but remark him: the coal curls, the perfect candour of his pale blue eyes, the sweet hoarseness in the voice, the way worry would pucker his chin. There was a lot to fret about: his impetuous marriage to the social- climbing Rosamond, his ruined reputation, and then there was the small matter of reaching Waterloo and hailing a cab to the Comedy Theatre where he would pose once again as a psychotic rent-boy at the behest of a Mr Harold Pinter.

THEATRE / A revenger's tragedy: Paul Taylor on Peter Shaffer's new play The Gift of the Gorgon, at the Barbican

Here's a paradox: a drama about the superiority of forgiveness to blood vengeance that leaves you murderously disposed towards the playwright-protagonist. It's about the only point in Peter Shaffer's The Gift of the Gorgon where your emotions are illuminatingly confused (though it's hard to say how intentional this is).
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