As someone who tries to do her research before seeing literary adaptations, it was fortunate that Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters (sic) is a very short novella. This caper of courtship and social climbing was written by the nine-year-old Ashford in 1890 and forgotten for almost 30 years when it was lent to a friend; it became a publishing sensation in 1919, with the childish spelling and grammar adding to the charm. Ashford, who composed her last story at the age of fourteen, didn’t capitalise on this success, so we’ll never know if she could have been a rival for Nancy Mitford (one could imagine the irrepressible Jassy or Victoria Radlett penning something similar in the Hons cupboard).
Ashford herself was uncertain about the tone and remarked on how peculiar it was “being able to laugh at what one wrote in such solemn seriousness“. It’s certainly not something that could be approached as a serious drama; the challenge is gauging the appropriate level of knowingness. Almost as if to make up for the absence of quotation marks in the text, Mary Franklin (adaptor and director) and her company present the piece as if the entire thing is wrapped in inverted commas and some of the chaos teeters on self-indulgent unprofessionalism. The overt campness that I can’t say I detected in the book (though it’s certainly ambiguous as to how knowledgeable Ashford was about the facts of life) is applied as indelicately as the ‘ruge’ on Ethel’s cheeks (“because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house”) and is relied on more heavily to raise laughs than the absurdity of the language.
Contrary to Victorian conventions, no one bats an eyelid at Miss Ethel Monticue staying in the homes of strange men (and in adjoining bedrooms too) without a chaperone. Her host and admirer Mr Salteena, “an elderly gentleman of 42” doesn’t stand a chance once she meets his wealthy friend Bernard with his “very nice long legs”. In order to realise his other dream of becoming a gentleman, Salteena undergoes training with the impoverished Earl of Clincham in his ‘compartment’ in the Crystal Palace, dons knickerbockers and hobnobs with the Prince of Wales himself, but, alas, social mobility isn’t a guarantee for happiness.
Amidst the broad brushstrokes are carefully measured contributions from Sophie Crawford’s gamine, multi-tasking Narrator and the sincerity imbued by Tom Richards to the “not quite on the right side of the blanket” Mr Salteena’s humble ambitions, the Buttons to Ethel’s Cinderella and Bernard’s Prince Charming (much panto-ish ‘Aww’-ing ensued). Ethel is a rather horrid heroine, whose grasping nature is excellently portrayed by Marianne Chase in a Goldilocks wig and an impressive range of simpering expressions.
The production (designed by Carin Kakanishi) looks lovely with its abundance of flowery fabrics and skewed proportions. The fourth wall is broken rather clunkily, in which audience members become ancestors displayed in Bernard’s gallery, and the handing out of wedding invitations also feels overly cutesy. Rough Haired Pointer are a new company with plenty of exuberance and if the excesses could be used more sparingly in future, that would be just the right idear (sic).