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Mrs Pat

Pam Gems
Theatre Royal, York
(2006)

Mrs Patrick Campbell

Her acid tongue launched a thousand quips, she drove George Bernard Shaw to distraction and she enchanted playgoers for decades. Yet Mrs Patrick Campbell, one of the most acclaimed actresses of her day, spent her declining years in genteel poverty and died, almost forgotten, in 1940. It's easy to see why Pam Gems, the author of Piaf, was intrigued by Mrs Pat's life story; less easy to understand why she decided to pad out a 45 minute one-hander to full length and fill the stage with shadowy minor characters.

We first meet Mrs Pat at a 1930s Hollywood party. Her glory days have long departed but she's still capable of casting a spell over the young Americans who demand to hear her life story. This hoary old plot device doesn't bode well for the rest of the play, but Isla Blair's stage presence in the title role and Mrs Pat's devastating wit compensate for some clumsy writing (such as having a wardrobe mistress describe Lady Jennie Churchill, whose first husband was stolen by Mrs Pat, as "little Winston's mum").

The other five cast members play at least twenty-five roles between them and flit across the stage so rapidly they barely register. Only Phillip Joseph's George Bernard Shaw makes a lasting impression - perhaps Pam Gems should have concentrated on the stormy relationship between Mrs Pat and the author of Pygmalion. The actress created the role of Eliza Doolittle and spent her impoverished final years begging Shaw's permission to publish his letters to her, a request the cash-conscious playwright flatly refused.

Ifan Meredith offers a nice little cameo as the young John Gielgud, visiting Mrs Pat in her tatty New York flat and accidentally sitting on her beloved dog (not a real one, I hasten to add). Joseph Raishbrook walks on as the mysterious Mr Patrick Campbell, a character so nebulous he could have been omitted completely, but has an opportunity to make his mark as the aspirate-free playwright Hall Caine - "That was a long play, even without the aitches," says Mrs Pat after listening to a reading of his latest melodrama.

On the distaff side Karina Fernandez has the unenviable task of impersonating Sarah Bernhardt, who played opposite Mrs Pat in a French version of Pelleas and Melisande (they appeared at the Theatre Royal in this play when Mrs Pat was 40 and Sarah 60. In the words of an Irish critic, "both are old enough to know better"). And Rebecca Jenkins spends the evening sprinting between the stage and a Dress Circle box in her dual role as actress and cellist.

The best efforts of director Sue Dunderdale can't disguise the underlying problem - Mrs Pat is basically a one-woman show with a cast of six. A succession of biographical snippets meanders across Norman Coates' all-purpose backstage set, Mrs Pat wipes the floor with all comers and gives a front-of-curtain speech to starry-eyed American students. The play sparks into life when Mrs Pat and GBS are alone together, but otherwise it's a curiously undramatic evocation of a theatrical legend.

At the Theatre Royal, York, until 1st April

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson