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A Woman of No Importance... Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow
The Hen and Chickens
6th February 2013

★★★★☆

Let's face it, the closest most people in their mid-20s have come to anything resembling the witty sparring of Noel Coward is Frasier. That show, part comedy of manners, part French farce, is the spiritual successor of Coward, who, in turn, carried on where Oscar Wilde left off. Few contemporary companies have bothered to continue tapping this rich vein of comedy, instead preferring to rehash Blithe Spirit for the 257th time. It's telling that the only person who seems to have scooped up the now-fumbled baton isn't a playwright, but a musician - Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy.

Any attempt to ape Coward or Wilde too closely is asking for trouble - like writing a tragedy and naming it Hamlet 2: Electric Boogaloo. The rhythm, speed and sensibility need to be, frankly, perfect. Writer/star Katherine Rodden largely sidesteps this pitfall by not trying to make this a period piece and at every turn (whether that be the title, or Noel's dulcet tones as the audience files in) acknowledging her debt to the greats. Gone is the need to force a delicious turn of phrase in that elegant and inimitable style, leaving Rodden to find her own voice and add to the, for want of a better word, genre, rather than simply create a pastiche.

As per a farce, the plot isn't too complex, or, at least it isn't until the characters get their hands on it. Lauren (Rodden), is an emotionally frail, boozy actress. This desperate, and desperately bored performer has some unwanted drama injected into her life when she finds herself playing host to her mother (Rachel Dobell) and father (Alan Booty). Chuck in a couple of lawyers, Lauren's pal and her boyfriend and, as you've no doubt realised, it's a cocktail of anger, repressed emotions and very British slagging matches.

The overriding quote of Lady Windermere's Fan is: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Rodden and director Cat Robey certainly take heed of this, with Sarah Pitard's set signifying both fairly moneyed and an utter tip, a great reflection of Lauren's character. She might be able to see the stars reflected in her own sick. It's almost the harsh reality of Waugh's Bright Young Things when the party ends. But the only party here is Lauren's pity party, with Rodden imbuing her with endearing qualities despite her broken nature. In both performance and script Rodden has balanced the play to allow Lauren to be the fulcrum but, as so often happens, not let her get lost amidst the madness.

The main source of this madness comes from Dobell's well-meaning but harridanish mother and Booty's bumptious and blustering father. In fact everyone, from the overconfident and sickly Adrian (Patrick Neyman) to the almost invisible, put-upon Craig (Keith Wallis) turn in grand performances. Sure, they are wild caricatures of people rather than fully-realised character studies, but that's the nature of the beast. They all have heart in spades, though, and the fundamental good nature of the play never drowns in the cattish remarks or withering put-downs.

As mentioned, so much of the joy comes from the pacing of the piece as well as the actual words. If there's nothing frantic about it, it seems like there's nothing at stake. We want the characters to be able to toss out witty bon mots at an almost inhuman pace, while others run around like headless chickens. Robey understands and effortlessly choreographs this, with all the actors doing their part never to miss a beat.

All of this combines to show an accomplished tribute to the great men - created with a love of the source material, a linguistic flair and an eye for detail making it, most importantly, very funny indeed. And I wasn't the only one - the whole audience seemed to be having a whale of a time.

Running at a lean 70 minutes (but seeming much more fully-fleshed than that short time sounds), it's another feather in the cap for the wonderful Hen and Chickens. With A Woman of No Importance...Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow, Paradigm have made a brilliant case for the rejuvenation of a much-overlooked - and when not ignored, usually poorly presented - piece of British theatrical history.

A Woman Of No Importance... Or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow ran from 5th to 23rd February 2013 at the Hen and Chickens.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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