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A CurtainUp Review
The Royal Family

By Lizzie Loveridge
If there's one thing that takes the romance out of roses it's getting them every day.  
--- Fanny

The Royal Family
From left: Julia McKenzie, Peter Bowles, Harriet Walter, Judi Dench, Toby Stephens and Emily Blunt (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
I wonder how often how we receive a play is affected by our expectations? In this case, the pedigree is impeccable and the expectations were high. Sir Peter Hall is directing, Judi Dench is in the lead and in the lesser roles are actors who can expect a star billing in their own right: Harriet Walter, Peter Bowles, Toby Stephens and Julia McKenzie. All in London's most beautiful theatre, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, two hundred and eighty years on the same site, the present building designed by the royal architect to the Prince Regent, John "Beau" Nash. The play, dating back to 1927 by two of New York's Algonquin set known for their incisive wit, George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber is about a theatrical family of several generations and is loosely based on the Drew-Barrymores.

If a play is thin on plot, it needs strong characterisation to see it through. The Royal Family is about three generations, all of whom decide to put their own lives on hold in order to take part in theatre. Judi Dench is Fanny Cavendish, the doughty grande dame, the woman who will never give up and whose husband actually did die on stage but considerately, at the end of the curtain calls. Dench has tremendous stage presence, there is a very funny moment when she feigns a swoon in the arms of her stage son, Anthony Cavendish (Toby Stephens), reminding us that she can act a "pretty wench". Fanny castigates her granddaughter who is to get married and give up acting, "Your mother and I both got married but we didn't drop more important things to do it." Unfortunately there is not enough for Dench to do except to switch from one sumptuous outfit to another. In one scene she lies down to rest, only to reappear a few minutes later in yet another Aubrey Beardsley inspired sweeping gown with an intricate turban she cannot possibly have been wearing in bed. Dench of course handles the pathos in accepting that Fanny is too ill to carry on acting, expertly.

I enjoyed Toby Stephens' swashbuckling film actor on the run from a "breach of promise" suit. He swung over the banisters of Anthony Ward's magnificent spiral staircase with all the aplomb of an Errol Flynn and he only had one take! A highlight of the play is his fencing duel with his fencing master - splendid stuff. Peter Bowles and Julia McKenzie play Fanny's brother and sister-in-law, Herbert and Kitty Dean, B rated actors who are eventually downgraded to careers in Vaudeville after failing in the "real" theatre. McKenzie as Kitty described by her husband in a play, "You were an offstage noise!" does her best but neither appear seedy enough. The very tall Bowles, even in his terrible wig, always seems to be a member of "the Royal Family". Now to the problematic; Harriet Walter as Julie Cavendish, the current star billing of the family. Harriet Walter plays down the temperament and the excesses and I never believed in her star quality.

This is a very noisy play as Peter Hall often has all his cast talking at once. The early scenes are dominated by incessant ringing of door bells and telephones and servants rushing about and everyone shouting. The point is that a theatrical family has too many egos but it is at times painful to watch. Too often we are expected to laugh at the chaotic comings and goings. The arrival of the new baby and the death scene which ends the play are very predictable. I did however like Tony's arrival back from Europe having seen Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera heralding a new age of realism in the theatre. The costumes are fabulous, each deserving a place in Covent Garden's Theatre Museum. Julie's succession of black and white costumes are amazing, even the striped fur one which makes her look like a badger. Anthony Ward's set is dominated by the resplendent staircase but it is crammed with detail, family portraits, period sofas, chinese vases and persian rugs.

Elyse Sommer reviewed the play five years ago when it was also given a stellar production (see link below) and I agree with her assessment that the play is not as dazzlingly witty as we might have expected from two such writers. I also think that today with people not having to choose between careers and family, the issues the play deals with are not as momentous as they once might have been. This sadly leaves The Royal Family in a kind of no man's land of theatre, not a great historical play, nor a great comedy and certainly not a great tragedy and on this occasion, a sad waste of theatrical talent. Kaufman himself, besides writing seventy plays, was a caustic theatre reviewer for the New York Times; he wrote of one comedy, "There was scattered laughter in the rear of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there." Once when he was bored during a play, he whispered to the woman in front of him, "Madam would you mind putting on your hat?"

The Royal Family reviewed in 1996

The Royal Family
Written by George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Directed by Peter Hall

Starring: Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Toby Stephens
With: Joy Richardson, John Griffiths, Andrew Sloane, Richard Ryan, Peter Bowles, Julia McKenzie, Emily Blunt, Robert Petkoff, Philip Voss, Peter Blythe, Penny Ryder, Tony Brunt, Jamie Hayes
Set Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Music by Paddy Cuneen
Fights by Richard Ryan
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7930 8800
Booking to 2nd February 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 2nd November 2001 performance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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