Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and neither is “Daisy Pulls It Off,” the West End long-runner from the 1980s that has returned to Shaftesbury Avenue as part of the ongoing fetish for things theatrical from that decade (“Noises Off,” “The Real Thing,” “Morning’s at Seven,” etc.) that has taken root on both sides of the Atlantic. My memory from 1984 — well into “Daisy’s” original run — is of a charming pastiche of a near-Edenic England in which the twin virtues of honesty and pluck triumphed on and off the hockey field. Lo these many years later, we’re all less innocent, and so is Denise Deegan’s play, which now prompts a faintly grin-and-bear-it response that a slow-to-awaken second-night audience (for most of the first act, anyway) seemed to share.
That’s by no means to fault the utterly enchanting lead, newcomer Hannah Yelland, who by rights should turn out to be every bit as much a shining “Daisy” alumna as such veterans of the first go-round as Samantha Bond, Kate Buffery and “Skylight’s” unforgettable Lia Williams. Playing a poor girl who at the eleventh hour discovers her aristo background while vanquishing the snobbery and condescension around her, Yelland possesses a bright smile and a winning, uncloying way with turns of phrase — “capital,” “ripping,” “thanks awfully” — that tend to pall after 2½ hours.
Deegan’s script pokes affectionate fun at an English literary genre, the Angela Brazil schoolgirl novels of a bygone era, that can best be described as the fairer sex getting its own back on “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” It’s interesting, too, to note that “Daisy” first occupied a West End perch up the street from Julian Mitchell’s “Another Country,” a thoroughly male portrait of the enclosed and self-absorbed world of brethren to which “Daisy” is a kind of lighthearted distaff antidote. (Nor did “Country” ever boast an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune, though those unskilled in acronyms may miss the composer/co-producer’s presence here.)
The fact remains that director David Gilmore might have been better off with a braver approach this time around to the text, rather than merely attempting a facsimile of the lucrative original that extends to replicating the original design. (In charge of re-creating the costumes is one Bushy Westfallen, who, with such a singular name as that, clearly should be a character in the play!)
As it is, everything is much as before: No sooner has the smilingly tomboyish Daisy arrived at Grangewood — aka “the jolliest school in England” — before that oak-paneled institution’s first scholarship student has run afoul of the venomous and beautiful and posh Sybil Burlington (a grimly overeager Jane Mark) and her toadying sidekick, Monica Smithers (Anna Francolini, the splendid Gussie of last season’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” here playing a role chiefly remembered for two amusing shrieks well into the second act).
Life quickly becomes a misery for the usually buoyant Daisy, the lone sister among four alliteratively named brothers who spends all too much of the evening pining for mother. Eventually, Daisy’s family refashions itself in a way that won’t be revealed here, though it doesn’t demand too much sleuthing to figure out that a character described as “solitary” and “mysterious” will end up crucially linked to proceedings.
Deegan’s narrative has its cake and eats it, too, proferring a meritocratic vision of England that is somewhat undercut by giving Daisy a social out unavailable to most of the coachloads of students who may end up seeing the play (and were at the perf caught).
Daisy’s gee-whiz energy aside, one has to admire the verve of a show that has chosen to re-emerge amid a climate in which all too many British schools face far greater disciplinary problems than the burst hot-water bottles that prove the greatest threat to the hymn-singing Grangewood. (To that extent, “Daisy Pulls It Off” seems less a 1920s period piece than an outright fantasy.) Still, amid a very variable cast (no naming the chief offenders), Katherine Heath manages to make exclamations like “Jemima!” sound sufficiently fresh without curling one’s toes, playing Daisy’s staunchest ally (and fellow quoter of Latin) even when the chips are down. And Yelland’s finesse in the title role — she’s neither too knowing nor too coy, the part’s twin traps — signals a real find in a young performer who truly pulls it off even when a rather wearisomely cheery evening has begun to pall.