DIANA OF DOBSON’S
New Vic Theatre, Saturday 7th May, 2016
Written in 1908 by Cicely Hamilton, this forward-thinking piece is given a lively revival by the team at the New Vic. It begins in the dormitory of Dobson’s store, where the shop girls are getting ready for bed. One of them, the rebellious Diana (Mariam Haque) decries their lot and the starvation wages they are forced to accept. She’s a firebrand and ahead of her time. But then she gets news of a surprise inheritance – things turn a bit Spend, Spend, Spend when she decides to blow the lot during a month of living entirely for pleasure. She winds up at a posh hotel in Switzerland where she is accepted among the toffs, as long as she gives the impression that there is plenty of moolah in her coffers.
With music hall songs interpolated between scenes, Abbey Wright’s likable production creates an Edwardian feel – not least due to Lis Evans’s design work with costume and set. There is a chirpiness that runs through the show – from Rosie Abraham’s perky Miss Jay, to Kate Cook’s bright-eyed and grasping Mrs Cantelupe. It has an authentic feel – the songs really help convey the sense of period. I particularly enjoyed Brendan Charleson’s nouveau riche Jabez, Anne Lacey’s Mrs Whyte-Frazer (along with a couple of other roles that demonstrate versatility) and the sterling support from Susannah Van Den Berg, Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Claire Greenway. Adam Buchanan shines as well-to-do wastrel Victor, who learns what is truly valuable in this life, and the superlative Andrew Pollard shows us all how it’s done with a delicious song to close the first half, a kind of Sweet Transvestite meets The Lumberjack Song, through the prism of the Edwardian Music Hall. Absolutely delightful. Pollard also displays his strengths as a character actor with a warm portrayal of a bobby on the beat.
Unfortunately, the fun and engagement engendered by the songs is not always present in the action. I find myself interested in the social commentary and the politics rather than affected by Diana’s exploits or her plight. I think it’s because the leading lady sounds like she comes from another time – she’s a bit too 21st century in her tone and plays it all on the same level. A bit more light and shade, and a bit more sparkle and pluck might make us fall in love with her a little bit. Instead, I find I just don’t care.
Yes, the play still – unfortunately – has much to say to us today in these times of the so-called living wage and the slavery of ‘work fare’ but what I come away from it with is an admiration for the ensemble and a rekindled appreciation of the songs of the day.