A social-climbing middle-class Home Counties couple launch their pretty but awkward daughter on the London marriage market and eventually steer her towards the ‘right’ public schoolboy with a title to inherit …

… but enough about the Middletons. In The Reluctant Debutante, it’s 1957 and the pushy mother is Jane Asher in a series of Butterick floral shirtwaisters pleading brightly into the Bakelite telephone to beg a series of MAYfair and SLOane numbers to come to dinner. Thanks to her vagueness she dials a wrong number and invites a ‘dark’ bounder rather than the Tim-Nice-But-Dim she’d targeted, but two and a quarter hours later the bounder acquires a dukedom and so turns out to be the right sort after all.

I wanted to write a scathing dissertation about the inappropriateness of snobbish and mildly racist comedy in a post-20th century theatrical brave new world but firstly the excellent Jem Bloomfield has already done it for TheArtsDesk and secondly I found this revival rather beguiling.

Although born to the purple and a sibling of a future Prime Minister, William Douglas Home never fitted the Tory mould and was something of a maverick, joining several different political parties but finding none of them met his aversions to authority and convention. The Reluctant Debutante is a satire, and his opinions about the ridiculous ‘social season’ as an expensive cattle market for middle-class parents ‘one step away from white slavery’ are voiced through Clive Francis’s drily perfected portrayal of the jaded father of the bride-to-be.

Drawing room comedies are valuable because they sowed the seeds of the most durable entertainment vehicle of the age: the television situation comedy, where domestic misunderstandings and trivial accidents are heightened to melodramatic effect in a chain of events from early ‘The Marriage Lines’ or ‘Terry and June’ to ’30 Rock’ and ‘Peep Show’.

The audience certainly responded to the sitcom format of the script with enthusiasm, and this is a tribute to the fact that the entire cast plays it straight. In the recent ‘Blithe Spirit’ at Richmond, a drawing room comedy of similar vintage, director Thea Sharrock encouraged the cast to overact it rather than rely on the script to entertain. Reluctant Debutante works better because Belinda Lang has the sense to let the lines and situations speak for themselves.

Asher, Francis and Lang herself are old hands at this sort of thing and their performances are consistently good although Lang’s own ‘turn’ as Mabel Duchess of Claremont borders on caricature and if someone else had been directing might have been tamed. Asher is now on the cusp of her ex-boyfriend’s famous lyric ‘When I’m 64′ and looks absolutely stunning and twenty years younger.

The ‘gels’: daughter Jane (Louise Calf) and her friend Clarissa (Lucy May Barker) give serviceable performances, but the two young suitors played by Alex Felton and Ed Cooper Clarke are excellent. Cooper Clarke is particularly good at the romantic suavity required of his ‘bounder’ character, and may remind you of a young Rupert Everett or Hugh Grant.

Don’t let images of Hugh Grant put you off, this is an enjoyable evening.

Runs until Sat 19th

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.