‘What is a play?’, asks a gauche young writer in his first interview with formidable literary agent Peggy Ramsay. Peggy claps her hands in delight, exclaiming, ‘I don’t think that’s ever been mentioned in the office before. What a question!’ She proceeds to ask all the writers she encounters their opinion. Unfortunately, beyond droll quips, Alan Plater’s Peggy for You fails to come up with any particularly illuminating answers.
Peggy for You was first produced at the Hampstead Theatre in 1999. Richard Wilson’s revival concludes the theatre’s ‘originals’ season, which celebrates 60 years of productions of new plays. The reproductions of theatre posters that festoon the back wall of James Cotterill’s set (a beautifully detailed period rendering of a 1960s agent’s office) suggest that this production was conceived as a love letter to theatre. The theatrical in-jokes come thick and fast; much is made of cheques being mixed up between two writers called Alan (Ayckbourn and the less famous Plater). However, as a period piece written twenty-years ago, the reference points seem far removed and for me (but not the older couple sitting next to me) the jokes failed to land. What we should call a play that is no longer new writing but also has not become a classic? Old writing?
Peggy for You presents an imagined day in the working life of Ramsay in the late 1960s. Peggy and her assistant, whom she calls Tessa after the previous one, but whose real name is Stephanie, field calls from film producers, the media, and disgruntled clients. Peggy meets three (white male) writers, representing different stages of a writer’s career and seemingly thinly veiled autobiographical projections of Plater himself: an unpolished, starry-eyed 21-year-old; a foppish 30-year-old hot-shot whose current play is the toast of the town; and a truth-telling, middle-aged Northern writer who has fallen out from under Peggy’s spell.
Very little happens in the first half of the play. It is an extended set up of the world of agency and the myth of Peggy, kept afloat by repartee and Tamsin Grieg’s charismatic performance as the central character. We meet Peggy lounging on a chaise longue, rifling through scripts. She has stayed up all night bailing a drunk and disorderly client out of jail. She delivers devastatingly honest feedback to her clients but also fights for (what she believes to be) their best interests, starting all her telephone calls with a drawling, ‘darling’. Peggy has all the best lines in the play and Grieg delivers her dry epigrams and rambling but surprisingly pointed anecdotes with gusto. She is titteringly scatty, repeatedly confusing Crouch End/ Lands End/ South End and demonstrating a metropolitan disdain for the North, which now seems painfully outdated, along with her contempt for writers’ wives.
Despite the efforts of Danusia Samal (Tessa) and Josh Finan (Simon), the other characters seem two-dimensional foils to illuminate the brilliance of Peggy. This is with the exception of Henry (Trevor Fox), who comes into his own forthright power in the second act to confront Peggy with her shortcomings as an agent. By this time, I, too, had fallen under the spell of Peggy from Grieg’s brilliant performance, so this comes as a welcome counterpoint. Peggy emerges as a far more ambivalent character, complicit in sustaining her own myth. Her callous reaction to the news of the death of one of her clients is also telling. In the most powerful scene of Wilson’s directing, Peggy’s secretary is fending off obituary requests from journalists on the telephone in tears, while in the other room Peggy refuses to express grief for a writer that had stopped working before he died. While the final moments of the play allow us to glimpse something behind the mask, there is a brittleness to Grieg’s performance of the character, which I think originates in the writing; we are not allowed to fully understand her.
Ultimately, Plater chooses to cast Peggy (or lets her cast herself) as a flawed tragic hero, relying on established theatrical conventions. For a play that muses so much on the new and the nature of theatre, its form is mired in conventionality. At one point, Peggy tells the aspiring playwright that a play should take the audience across a bridge to somewhere they have not been before. Not only does Peggy for You tread familiar territory, but it is also nostalgic for a version of the British theatre industry that no longer exists. While far from perfect, new writing development in 2021 is better funded, more diverse, and less reliant on the caprice of powerful individuals than the theatre represented in Plater’s play. Maybe we need more space onstage to imagine what theatre could be, rather than mythologising what it was.
Peggy for You is on at Hampstead Theatre till 29th January. More info here.