HERE'S AN irony. If we're talking about matchmaking, then whoever introduced Prunella Scales to the title role of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker should be encouraged to switch profession at the earliest opportunity. In Patrick Nathan's ambitious but flat revival of the comedy at Chichester, Miss Scales doesn't just fail to take up residence in the part, she barely manages a sub-let.
Critics were hard on Streisand when she played Dolly Levi in the film of the musical of the play (Hello Dolly), and it's true that at 26 she was absurdly young to be portraying a middle- aged widow and that her performance (a bit of Mae West flung in here, a snippet of Fanny Brice tossed in there) doesn't hang together. But with her rapid, sassily inflected comic shtick and her self-mocking voluptuousness, Streisand gives a wonderful sense of the on-the- ball, omnivorous side to Dolly's compulsive scheming and of her flair for running rings round the dull, rich bachelor she has determined to marry. What a waste, you feel, watching her, that such an interesting woman should have allowed herself to fester in withdrawn widowhood.
Miss Scales's depressingly dull and mousy Dolly communicates none of this. The energy level of the production actually drops whenever she walks on stage. Far from wanting to rejoin the human race, this Dolly seems to be hankering after a quiet home for retired gentlefolk.
It's not the first time that this actress, who is wonderfully gifted within a certain range, has imposed herself on the public's attention in a seriously inappropriate part. Think of her version of the drug-addicted mother in A Long Day's Journey Into Night, immortally characterised by a colleague as A Long Day's Journey Into Haselmere. She can't, you fear, be getting good advice.
This has been a fine week for those who enjoy seeing stars outshone by actors in lesser roles. First there was Simon Russell Beale whose Ariel, without meaning to, eclipses Alex McCowen's Prospero at Stratford. Now at Chichester, there's the equivalent case of Isla Blair, who as the younger widow and reluctant milliner Irene Molloy triumphantly embodies the play's true comic spirit. With a delectable mix of intrepid nerve and intermittent nerves, she beautifully shows you a woman who decides for one day to take a vacation from stuffy propriety and paint New York red.
In the main, though, the production tries to make up in heavy-duty effortfulness what it lacks in light grace. There are handsome sets by Joe Vanek, but they manage to be somewhat vague about time of day, an important element in a comedy that's about seizing the chance to play hookey for a delirious 24 hours. I actually prefer the time scheme in the filmed musical version which follows the classic pattern of romantic comedy: moving from day to confused night and ending in the clarity of the morning-after-the-night- before. The play concludes in the small hours which is not as emotionally satisfying.
Frank Lazarus gives an uncharacteristically creaky performance as the rich curmudgeon whom Dolly wants to manoeuvre into matrimony and neither he nor the other actors reconcile you much to the coy, downhome 'charm' of the sermonettes the characters are called on to deliver direct to the audience. A let-down of an evening, on the whole, not so much Hello Dolly as Don't Ring Us, Dolly, We'll Ring You.
Continues at Chichester Festival Theatre. Box office 0243 781312.
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