The reverential applause accorded Imelda Staunton on her entrance at yesterday’s matinee of Entertaining Mr Sloane threatened to rival that given to Angela Lansbury on Sunday at the Shubert Theatre. So signally and thoroughly has Ms. Staunton ascended the steps of the plinth of National Comedic Treasure that it can be only a matter of time before she snatches the mantle from the present incumbent, Dame Julie Walters* and assumes the throne itself.
Of course, I knew her when she was nothing. Well, not exactly but apart from the fact I went to school with her actor husband Jim Carter (and I played the leads whilst he was the butlers and spear carriers), I did ‘spot’ Imelda in one of her earliest stage outings as Clara the maid in Coward’s Hay Fever at the Watermill Theatre Newbury (in the days before you were required to play a bassoon at the same time) in 1977.
Thirty-two years later, Staunton is quite beyond criticism and certainly laid the ghost of Beryl Reid, although the seduction scene in which her pubic hair is so clearly displayed through the diaphanous negligee is perhaps not quite becoming for a future Dame of the British Empire.
Can’t remember Peggy Ashcroft getting her minge out, can you?
The brown and shabby living room set places us firmly in Vera Drake country and, indeed, I was mildly surprised Staunton didn’t invite Sloane to ‘sit on the bed and take your knickers off’ but she now inhabits a character who shares with Vera only her inability to express her emotional self and fondness for floral aprons.
The set works wonderfully to establish the claustrophobic framework of the ‘well made play’ too safely contained in its proscenium arch, and serves Orton's dialogue and situations magnificently as they become increasingly surreal, but departing from the same platform as Pinter or Osborne, whom, I hope, he despised.
The entire production is first rate but for me the delight was Mathew Horne who was as good as anyone I’ve seen in the role, including Malcolm MacDowell in the 1975 revival with Reid. Although working with Staunton makes any actor look like a giant, Horne’s physicality surprised me as he ranged from imposing to threatening, and particularly convincing in the eruptions to violence.
Despite his Gavin and Stacey popularity and limited stage experience, there was not a trace of the look-at-me-I'm-off-the-telly which has ruined so many other transitions from TV to West End. And he's not miked.
I’m not sure you can congratulate an actor or director for ‘the way he sat on the sofa’ but others who’ve seen the production may have been impressed by how he seemed to almost wear it, owning the central seat and allowing the action to revolve around him. Clever.
My jury is still out on Simon Paisley Day, playing Staunton’s brother Ed who adopts outwardly Sloane as his chauffeur and inwardly, the play hints, as his lover. I think it’s a BAFTA Best Supporting nominee, but over-reliant on smoking for dramatic effect, and his foot-tapping repressed impotence OCCASIONALLY had tinges of Blakey from ‘On The Buses’ which might have been correct for period but not for timbre.