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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville Theatre


  Janie Dee, Bill Champion and Perdita Avery/Ph: Allastair Muir

There's something altogether singular about watching a performer grow up in front of your eyes. It seems, for instance, as if it were only yesterday that Matthew Broderick was the cherub-faced, chirpy young lead made-to-order for Neil Simon, and here he is several decades on this New York theatre season starring in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, a play in which Simon Russell Beale - not the first actor you would connect up to Broderick - recently shone in London. Across the Atlantic, two-time Olivier Award-winner Janie Dee was appearing in an ill-fated Donna McKechnie-led revival of the musical Can-Can around the time that Alan Alan Ayckbourn's startling Woman in Mind first opened at London's Vaudeville Theatre 23 years ago. And with the kind of synchronicity that makes the decidedly unscientific world of the theatre appear to possess some sort of pattern after all, Dee is headlining the first London revival of that very play, also at the Vaudeville.

That the two productions are very different says something about two immensely gifted yet utterly distinct leading ladies:
not just Dee today but Julia McKenzie back in 1986, for whom Ayckbourn's tragicomedy - more, in fact, of a comitragedy - helped shift perceptions of McKenzie as primarily a musical theater talent toward an actress of surpassing range, which she had always been even when powering her way through Guys and Dolls. Dee also made an early mark in musicals (Carousel, for one) but wasted no time folding herself into the Ayckbourn canon, first regionally in A Chorus of Disapproval , later on the West End and then Off Broadway in Comic Potential , for which she nabbed pretty much every award going. That play tapped into Dee's ever-pert appeal - a kind of gamine for the ages - so it is with slight shock but also great admiration that one reports that the suburban wife and mother, Susan, whom Dee is now playing leaves all previous perceptions of this actress behind. To be sure, she can still light up a stage with the best of them, and her innate bodily ease makes this a sexier Susan than one recalls the first time around -Dee is a looser presence than the mighty McKenzie ever was.

But the part also here carries with it more gravitas - greater anger for one - than I had anticipated. Whereas this vicar's wife previously seemed a victim of crushingly banal circumstances that had led her to invent a fantasy family at the price of her own mental health, Dee grounds the character in an aggression that complicates matters, jettisoning at once any possible sentimentality. Reunited well into the play with the now grown-up son who has bade his parents farewell, her initial solicitude gives way to the very manner that one can imagine might have sent Rick (Dominic Hecht ) fleeing in the first place -you're not at all surprised when he reports his reluctance to bring the woman in his life home to meet mother. And though Stuart Fox's adage-prone Gerald, Susan's husband, could well drive anyone bonkers with his literary immersion in the history of the local parish since 1386, you find yourself asking whether in fact something in the dynamic between the couple might have driven him toward his life of books. Dee's Susan, in short, possesses the sort of transfixing restlessness that can wound even as it allows for hurt, as well -think Kate Winslet's aggrieved April in Revolutionary Road , displaced across the Atlantic and by a continent or two, and you get some idea of the way in which this first-rate actress ups the play's stakes.

Alas, the production itself isn't particularly revelatory, and some of the sound effects and scene-change music have the cheesy feel of unadventurous repertory theater: Ayckbourn, directing his own scrip


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