'Peggy For You' review — Tamsin Greig's standout performance celebrates Peggy Ramsay
Christmas came a little bit earlier in the form of the Santa-sent – no, make that heaven-sent – Tamsin Greig, who gives nothing less than one of the best performances of 2021 as the onetime uber-agent Peggy Ramsay, in Alan Plater’s 2000 play. Completing a season of revivals of plays first seen at the Hampstead Theatre, Richard Wilson’s production of Peggy For You improves on the original, which I saw back in the day with Maureen Lipman in the title role. Not only does Greig instantly give off the air of someone who would know her way around a script, but she finds in Plater’s series of encounters – neatly parcelled out across the two acts – something genuinely touching that mostly eluded Lipman, who played Peggy like a variant on her notable turn as Joyce Grenfell. This time round, the character seems at once richer and bolder, to the benefit of the play.
Greig creates a true original, in keeping, one imagines, with the enduring spirit of the Australia-born, South Africa-raised Ramsay, who emigrated to England only to end up representing a cross-section of the most notable playwriting talents of her time. (Devotees of the fine 1987 movie Prick Up Your Ears, about the writer Joe Orton, may remember Vanessa Redgrave’s notably suggestive Peggy, who is seen famously stroking her thigh in conversation.) Greig approximates something of the same provocations, while capturing the mercurial nature of a talent-spotter who could be ruthless one minute and maternally nurturing the next. This actress’s splendid comic timing is, as ever, a given. So, too, is her ability to communicate reserves within a character who has herself known a thing or two about loss, however wary she is of revealing those aspects of her personality when a witty reply comes more readily.
We see Peggy in conversation with an authorial newbie — the embryonic talent Simon (Josh Finan, suitably deferential), whose foray on to the London fringe perhaps improbably draws Peggy away from yet another major revival of Uncle Vanya. Careful to give us three scribes at differing points on the career spectrum, Plater brings Peggy face-to-face with the commercially successful, sexually ambiguous Philip (Jos Vantyler), leaving as the juiciest of the male roles that of the seasoned, determinedly principled Henry (Trevor Fox, bringing to this role the same prickly command he leant to The Pitmen Painters in London and on Broadway). His farewell to Peggy drives the second act and allows us to glimpse beneath the badinage to see the eponymous heroine, and the glory of sorts that has accrued to her, as worthy of a “classic three-act structure” all its own: Plater’s comparatively prosaic play here dipping into the realm of the meta.
Those near to the stage will have a field day scanning the posters of James Cotterill’s terrifically evocative set, amongst which I was especially drawn to the Royal Court production of Rhinoceros by Peggy’s client, Ionesco. Plater references himself in a running gag involving Peggy’s ignorance about the geography of Yorkshire as it relates to the two Alans she represents who are based there – Ayckbourn and, yes, this show’s playwright. It’s hard, too, not to have dipped even briefly into criticism without chuckling at the clever enfolding within the narrative of the definition of a play, a question Greig seems to savour as if she were perhaps trying out chewing over a recipe on a gourmet food show. And the rejection of Falstaff, well-known from Shakespeare’s Henry plays, is cunningly applied to Peggy’s own life in a deft authorial manoeuvre that works on its own terms, however far the play itself may deviate from cold, hard facts. (In the text, Plater refers to his own script as “bunk but also truthful”.)
Sailing through it all like the literary galleon that was Peggy is Greig, who may cut a more immediately sympathetic presence than the rather formidable woman pictured on the cover of the published script. But you’re left in no doubt at the loss represented by the absence from our midst of a truly independent-minded spirit who on this evidence might have made a good, if blunt, critic had her career taken a different path. The title refers to the phrase deployed when her secretary (a lively Danusia Samal) answers the phone, parrying any and all callers seeking their share of Peggy’s stardust. For now, let’s just be grateful for the theatrical glitter cast by Greig, one hugely accomplished woman of the theatre here honouring another and the audience the winner now just as Peggy’s list of writers was then.
Photo credit: Trevor Fox and Tamsin Greig in Peggy For You (Photo by Helen Maybanks)