Peggy For You: A star turn by Tamsin Greig at Hampstead Theatre ***
- Credit: Helen Maybanks
Hampstead's season of revivals to celebrate its 60th anniversary hasn't always served to remind audiences of past glories but to illustrate how once exciting new writing can date.
After a stop-start 21 months there's an urgent need to make new memories, and Roxana Silbert's 2022 season looks promising with world premieres by Roy Williams, Alexis Zegerman and Florian Zeller.
In the meantime there's Alan Plater's Peggy For You, a hit in 1999, which now feels creaky and old fashioned but features a star turn by Tamsin Greig as Plater's erstwhile agent Peggy Ramsay.
Born in 1908, she dominated and invigorated British theatre, often championing working class outsider voices like Joe Orton or Eugene Ionesco. Plater's affectionate tribute to her infuriating, eccentric brilliance is set at the height of her influence in the late 60s. Pacing barefoot around her third floor Soho office cluttered with piles of scripts, Greig lends Ramsay a sexy charisma as she's visited by three male writers one young, one a hit, and one faded and disgruntled.
Peggy's tooth and claw view of art making is that it's painful, bruising and courageous. Marital cosiness, financial success and demon drink are the enemies of creativity. She loses interest when writers cease to have that edge and demonstrates the splinter of ice in her own heart when one of her charges takes his life. Peppered with aphorisms and theatrical in jokes, young Simon's question What Is A Play? expands its potentially narrow confines. Peggy's answer: It's a bridge that takes you somewhere you've never been.
Richard Wilson brings his own comic talent to proceedings, but the jokes, revolving around Peggy's comic disdain of wives, Americans, mixing up two northern Alans who surely live on the same street and forgetting her secretary's name, feel well worn, the supporting roles thinly drawn. The central argument between Trevor Fox's northern playwright and Peggy never catches fire.
Twenty years on, Peggy feels like an exceptional woman in a theatrical boys club, and while it's hard to get under this somewhat unknowable character, it is Greig's acidic, unapologetic, gossipy, whip smart portrayal that's the draw.