The Lady of Leisure (The Mollusc)
Hubert Henry Davies
For the last play of the 2005 - 2006 season artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman Playhouse Gemma Bodinetz has chosen to resurrect a hit from the Playhouse's Edwardian heyday. A writer unknown to modern audiences, talking of a world swept away by the butchery of the trenches with no more connection to Liverpool than one of his plays did well here in 1912. It's a brave, if unusual choice.
The Lady of Leisure, or The Mollusc to give it its original title, tells the tale of society lady Dulcie Baxter, an arch-manipulator who has raised laziness to the level of an artform. Her downtrodden husband and her children's governess are both wrapped around her finger. Or would be if she could be bothered. Her brother arrives from Colorado and determines to teach her the error of her ways, and it's the battle between these two that drives the comedy.
The acting is wonderful; all four members of the cast are a delight to watch and it seems unfair to single out a particular performance but as Dulcie Baxter, Tessa Churchard has created a genuine comic monster. Greg Hicks is to be congratulated for creating a fine and believable Tom, the brash yet humane brother, in turns comically in love with his adopted Colorado, and touchingly vulnerable. While Kellie Bright and Colin Tierney aren't given quite the same material to work with, they both manage to create hugely enjoyable and, within the context of the piece, utterly believable performances.
Gideon Davey's design seems to favour the sparse and sepulchral; five perspective distorted doors opening onto a field of poppies at the back of the set, a few pieces of furniture, including one very rickety table, occupying the front. The overall effect is more reminiscent of the inside of a mausoleum than of an Edwardian drawing room. It would seem that the production is determined to drag the First World War into the symbolism of the piece. Now it's true that the playwright did die in the war. It's true that the war would sweep away much of the Edwardian order that The Lady of Leisure relies on. It's true that Davies fell into obscurity after his death in 1917 so to the modern observer the war does cast a shadow over the play, but The Lady of Leisure was first performed in 1908; it knows nothing of a war still six years away, making the symbolism seem spurious.
The play is very much a creature of its time, arch and mannered. While it would be wonderful to say that a lost master has been re-found, he hasn't; Davies largely deserves his obscurity. If viewed with an uncritical eye then The Lady of Leisure is great fun but no more. It's not particularly well written; the first half drags, the second is rushed. I found myself in the first half with my mind wandering, becoming fascinated by the actresses' wig lines; half way down their foreheads and standing out like war paint. I sat in the second half wondering just how they were going to wrap everything up in five minutes. I found out; The Lady of Leisure doesn't so much end as run headlong into a wall.
The audience rightly applauded the acting and forgave, or didn't notice, the production's oddities. The Lady of Leisure looks to have been done as well as it might have been and does have a certain period charm. Despite its faults it's worth seeing for the acting alone, and it's a rare opportunity to see theatre as it used to look.
"The Lady of Leisure" is at the Liverpool Playhouse until 3rd June.
Reviewer: Ged Quayle