The Peggy Ramsay industry picks up steam with “Peggy for You,” the latest chronicle of the London theatrical uber-agent who died eight years ago. Why such ongoing interest in an apparently lovable (if also difficult and mercurial) eccentric who by all accounts was far more imposing than the goofy figure cut by an agreeably miscast Maureen Lipman here? Britain loves its offbeat characters, to be sure, but it also appreciates a strong sense of real character, which Peggy possessed in spades. Whether her staunch advocacy of new writing will mean anything to a wider public will become clear only when Alan Plater’s Hampstead Theater sellout transfers for a commercial run to the Comedy Theater late next month. For now, let’s just say that Plater’s hagiography represents the sort of pleasantly sentimental tribute at which the real Peggy might well have bristled — while at the same time admitting that there’s something rather nice after one’s death at being remembered as a giver of life.
Those energies were dedicated to contemporary theater, which Peggy did as much to shape as anyone through her astonishing client list. Virtually every major British dramatist of a certain vintage was repped by Peggy, who appears onscreen in the amusingly lubricious guise of Vanessa Redgrave in the Joe Orton film biography “Prick Up Your Ears.” More recently, Simon Callow recounted his relationship with Peggy as the great (platonic) love affair of his life in the memoir “Love Is Where It Falls.”
Those who know Peggy only by repute may be somewhat dismayed by Lipman’s performance, since the National’s recent Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!” seems miles away from the semi-recumbent woman whose formidable gaze appears on flyers and posters for the show. Loping bare-stockinged about Liz Ascroft’s witty set, a recreation of the onetime brothel that became Peggy’s central London office, Lipman is essentially too soft a presence for a woman whose severity, paradoxically, was one of her charms. Robin Lefevre’s staging leaves one admiring a hard-working performance that is as much Joyce Grenfell (the loopy English comedienne whom Lipman has often acted onstage) as it is Peggy, for all the unquestionable passion of Lipman’s physically twitchy star turn.
Does Peggy’s passion live on today? (A passion with its peculiarities, given posters decorating the set for plays like “You’ll Come to Love Your Sperm Test.”) It’s difficult to say, though I wonder how many agents (not to mention critics) would opt to attend a fringe play called “Shades of Nothingness” by a budding young writer — as Peggy pointedly chooses to do here — when they could be at a glossy National Theater opening of a new “Uncle Vanya.” Peggy, a onetime lover of Ionesco and reciter of Beckett, prefers “dangerous new plays” to the tried and true.
Like the Pauline Kael of English agenting, Peggy was too fond of her clients not to treat them fiercely: “If writers get rich, they stop working,” she warns, followed minutes later by Beckett’s famous dictum, “Fail better.” One wonders, then, what advice she would have given Plater’s own wayward structure, which couples decidedly lame first-act exposition with a series of set piece tete-a-tetes that only begin to crackle in act two.
While Peggy’s assistant Tessa (Selina Griffiths) works the phone in the outer office — the play takes its title from Tessa’s conversational greeting-cum-refrain, “Peggy for you” — our heroine fields a trio of writer-visitors, each of whom conveniently embodies a separate aspect of the profession. Simon (Tom Espiner) is the eager playwriting novice, a 21-year-old with the daring to ask the fundamental question, “What is a play?”
The question stops Peggy dead in her tracks but provides ammo for her later arrivals — Philip (Crispin Redman), her lunch date, a 30-year-old success story who once wrote a play about Lorca but is now being wooed by Hollywood; and Henry (the excellent Richard Platt), a hilariously bluff Liverpudlian who mutters a reference under his breath to “the wicked witch of the West End.” It’s that last pairing that fully ignites a play that will be best enjoyed by devotees of ’60s British drama and the likes of the late David Mercer, whose untimely death provides the wounding pivot of Plater’s plot.
Hurling some of her more absurd scripts at Henry — “Romeo and Juliet” with the title roles transformed into a Jewish psychiatrist and an Islamic nun — Lipman drops her ingratiating facade to become a fiery seeker after excellence and truth, as well as the usefulness in one’s art of multiple affairs in life. To coopt Simon’s question, does all this, then, make “Peggy for You” a play? Of that I’m not so sure, though as a pep rally for a life in the theater, it can’t be beat.