The Lady's Not For Burning, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Well-painted portrait of a town where everyone talks picturesquely

Rhoda Koenig
Friday 13 December 2013 04:59
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"Bernadette Shaw! What a chatterbox!'' says the camp captain in Privates on Parade, little knowing that an even gabbier playwright awaited him back home.

In the late 40s, Christopher Fry made a brave stand at putting poetry back into drama, but led it down a gorgeously painted cul-de-sac.

Conceived as a response to the horrors of the Second World War, The Lady's Not For Burning (1948) is really an example of the arch-fantasy of the period, combining escapism with condescending drollery.

A play this talkie is a brave choice for a director's debut, a play this unfashionable a canny one. Samuel West's revival may lack cohesion, but his face in the play and his young, charming cast has managed to shape quite a bit of new life into this old fustian.

Burning is set in a 15th-century town where everyone either talks quite picturesquely or has infinite patience with those who do.

The mayor, on this eventful day, receives two callers: Jennet Jourdemayne seeks protection from the rabble who, incensed by rumour want her burnt as a witch; Thomas Mendip, bitter and tired of life, asks to be hanged.

While Thomas, despite confessing a murder, is treated as a mild nuisance, Jennet (shades of The Crucible) is told to prepare herself for the stake – the mayor is frightened by the spell her beauty has cast on him, and the judge points out that she has a very fine house.

The mayor also houses a sister straight out of Noel Coward (whom Alison Fiske makes even more anachronistic by a note-for-note Margot Ledbetter impression) and a couple of brawling nephews who want to marry the same girl.

But it's Thomas who usually has the floor, and who seems to have swallowed a dictionary and spent his life spitting it out, wondering at man's capacity for "cachinnation'' or announcing that "palingenesis has come again with a hey and a ho''.

Alan Cox isn't quite dashing enough to make us believe in Thomas – he's bluff and indignant when he should be sardonic, and his disgust isn't strong enough to be plausibly converted to the sudden passion for life that Jennet arouses within.

But Nancy Carroll as the persecuted girl is bewitching indeed; James Thorne, who looks perpetually astonished at himself, is a hilariously distracted suitor; and Georgina Sutcliffe is delectable as the object of his confused affections.

Amid the tomfoolery, there are moments of sudden beauty and asperity, as when love for most people is defined as the fear of being alone.

Who would have thought the old war-horse could caper so gaily? It makes for a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Is it really too much to hope that next time someone wants to put on a play about witch-burning, he will turn to Fry's rich, strange and deep drama rather than Arthur Miller's ponderous sermonising? That, I'm afraid, would indeed be a happy fantasy.

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