Following a season of sparkling jewel-box musicals, Anthony Biggs’ first production as Artistic Director of the Jermyn Street Theatre is Frederick Lonsdale’s 1926 comedy of manners On Approval. Although it’s a slight piece, the premise is intriguing: a domineering wealthy widow anxious to test the mettle of a hesitant romantic suitor agrees to take him away to Scotland on a month’s trial.

The situation is neatly set up – but the couple are accompanied by a pair of “best friends” who are also circling each other romantically: an overbearing, young and impoverished Duke, and a pretty pickle factory heiress. The tension between poverty-stricken nobility and nouveau-riche trade is almost Shavian in its clumsy obviousness.

In the inevitable plot-reversing quadrille, it becomes patently clear that the two overbearing characters are best suited to each other, and the nicer ones escape in what’s almost certainly a scene derived from Noël Coward’s two-years-earlier Hay Fever.  The dialogue strains to be epigrammatic but doesn’t have a fraction of the pith and polish of The Master, although Sarah Crowe’s unique inflexions and comic timing make as much of them as anyone could.

Although his heyday, such as it was, coincided with Coward’s, Freddy Lonsdale’s greater contribution to the drama may be that he sired the Fox theatrical dynasty as the grandfather of actors and producer Edward, James and Robert.

Crowe starts confidently in making Maria a plausible monster, and the audience relished her putdowns and impatience for platitudes or polite conversation and bridled at the constant stream of jokes about women of 40, but in the second act when the characters decamp to Scotland she seemed to run out of steam and the whole thing grinds to a halt. Lonsdale’s cardinal error is to end the play just when the two most brutal characters are left alone and might spark some verbal fireworks.

Daniel Hill, forever the slimy care-home manager in Waiting for God, wins sympathy as the hapless suitor, but it wears thin, and his frustration at the situation is palpably shared by the audience. The period and the aristocratic cocktail-drinking milieu are reinforced with copious smoking, the two gentlemen being obliged to spark up cigars at regular intervals which tests both the patience of the audience, since the actors are clearly not naturally Churchillian aficionados, and the Jermyn Street air conditioning. Wear something washable.

Date reviewed: Saturday 13th April 2013

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.