Why have Frederick Lonsdale when you could have Noël Coward? It’s an obvious question director Anthony Biggs never quite manages to dismiss in this revival of ’20s playwright Lonsdale’s most successful drawing-room comedy.
Like Coward, Lonsdale was an outsider turned socialite who sent-up the British aristocracy over its own brandy and cigars. He had a particular distaste, apparently, for the social bore. Yet in ‘On Approval’ he gives us four of them, yoked by a gently titillating, glibly symmetrical plot that grinds to a plod on its predictable course.
Maria (Sara Crowe) is a spoilt widow in want of a companion to share her wealth. George (Peter Sandys-Clarke) is a caddish young duke with divorce debts to clear and an ego that needs waiting on. Richard (Daniel Hill) and Helen (Louise Calf) are the perfectly nice, perfectly dull grown-ups who have fallen unaccountably in love with these two socially demanding babies.
Maria decides to try before she buys, whisking Richard to her remote Scottish estate to test his husbandly credentials. George and Helen invite themselves along and, abandoned by the servants and trapped by snow, the four are left to discover about each other what we all already know.
It’s a narrow, escapist play, proficient in cynical witticisms about marriage (‘a dinner party lasts two hours,’ remarks Helen, ‘some marriages last two years’), in which the performances are content to confine themselves.
Biggs tries to sustain the energy of the second half with a mimed sequence under flickering lights to mimic a silent comedy of the period. But Lonsdale’s claim on our attention remains his supposedly sparkling dialogue. And while the cast pop the required number of corks, it tastes like three-day-old cava. Bella Todd