Peggy For You at Hampstead Theatre review: Tamsin Greig elevates this above an in-joke

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  • Tamsin Greig
    Tamsin Greig
    English actress and comedian
  • Peggy Ramsay
    Theatrical agent
  • Alan Ayckbourn
    English playwright
Tamsin Greig and Jos Vantyler  (Helen Maybanks)
Tamsin Greig and Jos Vantyler (Helen Maybanks)

A captivating central performance from Tamsin Greig just about lifts Alan Plater’s portrait of literary agent Peggy Ramsay into something more than an act of theatrical navel gazing. Ramsay was rude, passionate, chaotic and inspiring and she honed the cutting edge of British theatre for almost four decades. Clients from Alan Ayckbourn to David Hare to Eugène Ionesco were urged to be bold, at the expense of financial reward or personal happiness.

The play is set in the mid-60s, when Peggy is in her pomp, surfing the waves of theatrical revolution while still keeping a link to the older generation of J.B. Priestley and Christopher Fry. Despite a frowsy blouse and pearls, Greig gives Peggy a capricious, sensual edge, prowling her manuscript-scattered, fourth-floor eyrie in Goodwin’s Court in stockinged feet, leaving writers exasperated but enthralled.

No wonder dramatists fell for her: she was great subject matter. She grew up on a South African ostrich farm, married and divorced her university lecturer and apparently tried every drug under the sun without ill effect. Greig gives us all the character’s brio and smartness but also suggests her core of mystery, particularly concerning her home life.

You simply can’t take your eyes off Greig in Richard Wilson’s spry, witty production. But, to quote Plater quoting Peggy: “Do we really give a sh**?” I’m loath to kick any show that manages to open at this fraught time, but I can imagine the short shrift Peggy would have given something so in-jokey and theatrically self-absorbed.

Trevor Fox, Tamsin Greig and Danusia Samal (Helen Maybanks)
Trevor Fox, Tamsin Greig and Danusia Samal (Helen Maybanks)

The play seemed of niche interest when it premiered in 1999, eight years after Peggy died. Wilson’s revival caps Hampstead’s 60th anniversary retrospective season, which has been dominated by indulgent choices.

Plater, who died in 2010, certainly created a fascinating, multifaceted sacred monster of a character in Peggy, but the other parts are thin. Assistant Stephanie – invariably misaddressed as “Tessa” by Peggy and ably played by Danusia Samal – is a straight woman to the main comic turn. The three male roles are self-portraits of the writer as wannabe, raging success, and disgruntled failure.

For all that it’s ironic self-mockery, the script is a sustained whinge about the playwright’s lot as much as it is a portrait of an industry titan. The philosophical question “what is a play?” is asked on a tediously regular basis.

You can’t take your eyes off Greig (Helen Maybanks)
You can’t take your eyes off Greig (Helen Maybanks)

Fortunately, the jokes are good. There’s a running gag that Peggy thinks all Northern writers, including her “two Alans” (Hull-based Plater and the more successful, Scarborough-dwelling Ayckbourn) live on the same bleak, cobbled street.

Peggy’s intermingled acuity, scattiness – mixing up Crouch End, Land’s End and Southend – and her essential brutality are well conveyed. Greig really is riveting to watch, by turns imperious, gossipy, acid and flirty, her mood shifting midway through a sentence or even a word.

Props to her, to Wilson, and all the cast and crew for getting this play open when productions all across theatreland are toppling. I just wish the play lived up to their efforts.

Hampstead Theatre, to January 29, hampsteadtheatre.com

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