With its title taken from the patriotic invocation of Henry V, Imogen Stubbs' first play revolves around a troupe of female players who travel the country during the Second World War bringing Shakespeare to the culturally deprived. Her Artemis Players are based on a real-life group- the Osiris repertory company- who, led by the resourceful Nancy Hewins brought the Bard and other classics to the provinces.
Stubbs' idea to dramatise this certainly seems potentially interesting and she's fortunate in having attracted to the project a first-rate cast, led by Juliet Stevenson as the indomitable Hetty, the fictional Hewins. With someone as capable as Stevenson at the helm you can be sure of quality; though the play itself often meanders significantly off-course the calibre of the ensemble makes this less evident than it would be otherwise.
It's a long play- over three hours- and would certainly have benefited from some judicious editing. John Napier's elaborate set vividly portrays the makeshift conditions under which the company laboured. The first half explores the formation of the Artemis Players, their struggles for artistic credibility and first tentative productions. Later there's a lot of time devoted to the private revelations of each individual member of the company but this does have a tendency to become somewhat long-winded.
Too often there's a feeling of the play being weighed down by its sheer density. Many of the Shakespearean references are pertinent and well integrated but there's simply too many disparate plot threads competing for attention. Directed by Trevor Nunn one feels a degree more objectivity could have trimmed away the superfluous material and produced a really engrossing play. This said, the actors are excellent overall. Kate O'Mara has great fun with the predictable but entertainingly acerbic Helen, Carolyn Blakiston is great as kindly Jocelyn and Marcia Warren -along with Stevenson- firmly anchors the production as Flora, the resident mother-hen of the company.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "..the performances are lovely. Yet the essential stuff of drama is missing...The evening becomes an aimless trawl." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Heart-warming production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This is a rag-bag of a play." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is a vanity production that does no favours to anyone involved; when the final curtain falls, it is like the blessed relief of the all-clear siren." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There isn’t a sweeter, warmer, more likeable play in London..But taut, sharp drama? That’s another matter."