Frederick Lonsdale’s 1926 drawing-room comedy On Approval is as frothy as the bubbles in the champagne its upper-class characters drink. Although his smart, sophisticated comedies were popular with West End and Broadway audiences in the 1920s, Lonsdale’s work has not stood the test of time in the way that the similarly witty NoÃ«l Coward plays have, lacking the latter’s subtext and darker, sexually ambivalent quality. However, if Lonsdale did not attempt to delve beneath the surface of the superficial people he wrote about, he certainly had a talent to amuse and, as probably his best play, On Approval is superior entertainment.
The gossamer plot revolves around the pragmatic arrangement of the rich, demanding widow Maria, sceptical about marriage after her disappointing first husband, to spend a month with long-time admirer Richard on her isolated Scottish country estate ‘on approval’ before agreeing to marry him. They are followed by her young, equally wealthy friend Helen who is attracted to the charming but spoilt playboy George, Duke of Bristol, who having frittered away his fortune must now choose between marriage and bankruptcy. Left alone to fend for themselves after the servants have abandoned them, it doesn’t take long before they start falling out.
Lonsdale gracefully sets up a scenario where the condescension of Maria and George in deigning to marry Richard and Helen is subverted as they reveal themselves to be thoroughly selfish and disagreeable companions, not the eligible people they consider themselves to be. There are mildly satirical swipes at the vanity and superciliousness of those with money and a title, but Lonsdale portrays them as amusingly loveable despite their flaws.
Newly appointed Artistic Director of Jermyn Street Theatre Anthony Biggs handles the play – last seen in London almost 20 years ago – with a light touch, ensuring that this theatrical soufflÃ© does not sink, while Cherry Truluck’s design neatly presents the move from smart art deco house in London to wooden-panelled, tartan-tinged Highlands retreat.
An accomplished Coward performer, Sara Crowe makes the most of Maria’s acid put-downs, while her bitchy exchanges with Peter Sandys Clarke’s insufferably narcissistic George are the highlight of the show, with plenty of sparks flying. In the less showy roles, Daniel Hill’s complaisant Richard and Louise Calf’s impressionable Helen give sturdy supporting performances.
Following on from an impressive revival of Graham Greene’s The Living Room, and before that the stage premiere of Beckett’s All That Fall and productions of two rare Ibsen plays, amongst others, this show is further proof that Jermyn Street is fast catching up with the Orange Tree and Finborough as a fringe theatre doing an excellent job in rescuing unjustly neglected plays from obscurity.