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Lethe

David Garrick
Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond
(2008)

Portrait of Samuel Butler

Packed audiences in Richmond experienced a rare delight over the weekend when for three performances they could see this rarely performed eighteenth-century 'afterpiece,' written by Garrick in 1740 before he took to the boards. It is an amusing, lightweight piece, though the assortment of humanity who are ferried across the Styx, to be given the chance to drink the waters of Lethe and forget unpleasant memories before returning to the world of the living, seem rather stock characters to me. A comic look at the fashionable foibles of the time, it had a long performance life as a play to follow the main drama of the evening. Garrick made changes to keep it up-to-date and wrote-in gouty Lord Chalkstone for himself (played here by Timothy West). While young women marrying ageing husbands for titles and fashionable position, cuckolded husbands with flighty wives, and would be fashionistas are still with us they are not quite the edge of contemporary satire.

Without new updating from its author it lacked bite, but still made pleasant entertainment, with Charles Kay as a kindly if cantankerous Aesop in charge of Lethe's water, Jenny Agutter as a new wife launching herself into society, Helen Bradbury as a fine lady who would like to forget her husband, Trevor Martin as an old man who wants to forget he has to die, a Charon complaining that mortals are much heavier than the dead souls he usually ferries across the Styx and Jonathan Elsom as a poet dramatist wanting to forget the reception of his latest play from which the manager cut all the best bits and the rest was ruined by the actors. The biggest laughs came for David Pepper's rather fluttery Mercury, flaunting full wings, not just winged sandals and helmet, which he doubled with a fantastical French fop, a Provençal barber come to England to pass himself off as a fashionable gentleman.

The play was dazzlingly dressed by Susan Kulkarni and played against Britain's oldest surviving set of scenery - or at least a facsimile of the original in the Georgian Theatre's museum - the backcloth and wings of a Woodland Scene (c.1836) which proved most appropriate. In fact, I strongly suspect that setting led to the choice of play, which was presented to tie in with a weekend conference on 'The Georgian Playhouse and its Continental Counterparts 1750-1850' which formed part of the Society for Theatre Research 60th anniversary celebrations.

Lethe was preceded by an entertainment that introduced Samuel Butler, the manager who built and ran the Theatre Royal, which opened in 1788 and has now been beautifully refurbished, and presented in revue form a review of some of the other performers and personalities of the period. For me this topped Lethe in its appeal. It kept the audience in stitches with some hilarious episodes such as Fanny Kemble (Jenny Agutter) recounting her experience of playing Juliet opposite an inadequate American Romeo (David Pepper). Trevor Martin was George Cooke, short of a penny to buy supper and a pint, pawning himself and lying on a shelf in the pawnbroker's shop and then,when due at the theatre, sending a message to the manager to send him money if he wanted him to play Richard III that night.

We got the scene from Nicholas Nickleby where Nicholas meets Mr Crummles and his Infant Phenomenon (Helen Bradbury), followed by accounts of her real life equivalents. We heard reports of David Garrick's disastrously washed-out egocentric Shakespeare Jubilee and Charles Kay gave us Edmund Kean in a touching episode from his career. Kean was an actor who always remembered those who had helped him in his early days. In Plymouth, on his way to an engagement at Exeter, Kean discovered the manager who gave him his first chance on stage, and offered his services to play any role he liked. The manager chose, but there turned out to be none of the experienced actors prepared to take on Gloucester and an inexperienced young comic actor in the company was forced to play it at a few hours notice. Thinking it had been a disaster he scuttled off after the curtain fell then heard Kean calling for him. Terrified of the great tragedian's wrath he was forced on to face the audience, where Kean acclaimed his performance to the house and said he had never been served so well.

It wasn't all 'legitimate' performers either: we also heard from a sword and snake swallower (Jonathan Elsom) who told us that with swords it helped to oil the blade, as that soothed things if it scratched, and that it was dangerous to cough, and that while snakes go down easy, their scales made it more difficult to bring them out.

With music arranged and played by Jeremy Barlow and songs sung by David Pepper and Helen Bradbury, Sam Butler & Co was a real audience pleaser. Like Lethe it was directed by Timothy West, who also linked the sequences in this piece which was devised by him with Iain Mackintosh and made a celebration entirely appropriate both for the Georgian Theatre and for the Conference.

Ended 14th September 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton