The late Peter Shaffer never wrote anything truly brilliant after 1979’s ‘Amadeus’, and eventually concluded he had nothing left to say – he died last year having not finished a play since 1992.
‘Lettice and Lovage’, from 1987, was his last really big hit, but even favourable contemporary reviews acknowledged that Shaffer’s comedy about a pair of middle-aged eccentrics was propped up by star Maggie Smith, for whom he wrote it.
It’s had no major revivals until this one from Trevor Nunn, but there’s reason to believe that even sans Smith, there’s still something to Shaffer’s comedy. It follows flamboyantly unprofessional stately home tour guide Lettice Douffet (Felicity Kendal) as she’s dismissed then befriended by her German-born superior Lotte Schoen (Maureen Lipman), as they bond over antique booze and a shared hatred of modern architecture.
If it’s fairly benign next to Shaffer’s iconic ‘Equus’ and ‘The Royal Hunt of the Sun’, there’s lots of interesting stuff bubbling away here about sexuality, terrorism, alienation and imagination, history and reality; something flinty could surely be moulded from the gentle odd couple and humour.
But Nunn seems determined to be about as unadventurous as physically possible. His production has the air of a creaky old sitcom to it (not least in Robert Jones’s very brown, very chintz set). I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Kendal isn’t in Smith’s league, but her performance seems flawed for reasons that feel more directorial than anything: she’s very funny when we first meet her, but there seems to have been no demand for exploration of the character, no curiousity about the damage that’s surely just beneath the surface of her lonely, unusual life. Lipman is better, bringing a certain troubled introspection – even a hint of darkness – to Lotte. But it’s not enough to give ‘Lettice and Lovage’ any real heft.
Bereft of the sort of titanic lead performance it was built for, ‘Lettice and Lovage’ feels like a harmless entertainment, a limp footnote to the career of a playwright whose greatest works reached boldly for the stars.