Magazine article The Spectator

Won Over

Magazine article The Spectator

Won Over

Article excerpt


The Royal Family

(Theatre Royal, Haymarket)

The Merchant of Venice

(The Pit)

When I first learnt that Peter Hall was directing a play called The Royal Family at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, I thought it must be some modern satire about the Windsors, particularly when I discovered Judi Dench was in the cast. Clearly, the actress who gave such memorable performances as Victoria in Mrs Brown and Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love was going to play the Queen. The British public was in for a huge treat.

In fact, The Royal Family is a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that was first performed in 1927, and while it isn't quite as mouth-watering as the play I imagined, it's still pretty good. Dench plays Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty that the authors based loosely on the Barrymore clan, the first family of Broadway. The action of the play revolves around Fanny's attempts to dissuade various members of her brood from giving up the pell-mell world of the theatre for a life of domestic drudgery.

When The Royal Family first came to London in 1930 the critics panned it, on the grounds that you had to know who the Barrymores were in order to enjoy it and few British people did. The same point was made by several reviewers when this revival opened last week, but I don't agree. Audiences are quite capable of recognising the types being portrayed on stage without knowing anything about the Barrymores. Tony Cavendish, for instance, who is energetically played by Toby Stephens, is a wayward matinee idol who could be any number of lovable Hollywood rogues, from Errol Flynn to Robert Downey Junior. The fact that he was originally based on John Barrymore is neither here nor there.

What is so charming about The Royal Family is that beneath the thin veneer of satire is an enormous amount of affection. Initially, the vanity and self-centredness of the Cavendishes make them seem rather unappealing, but by the end of Act IT they've completely won you over. You wonder that anyone could think of abandoning life among this motley troupe for the cold banality of a more conventional existence. The two stuffed shirts who try and bully the matriarch's daughter and granddaughter into giving up their careers on the stage don't stand a chance.

This opposition between a warm, tightknit community of non-conformists and an emotionally sterile bourgeoisie is characteristic of all the best plays of the period, many of which were turned into classic Hollywood films. …

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