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The professional romance between playwright Alan Bennett and actress Patricia Routledge began almost 30 years ago with the short television play A Visit from Miss Prothero, in which Routledge, the office dragon, ruins the retirement of her former boss. It became serious a few months later with Bennett’s state-of-the- nation play, also for television, Doris and Doreen, where a pair of lazy but lovable filing clerks experience the first tremors of the Thatcherite revolution.
Now the plays resurface on the studio stage of the Minerva to launch the summer season at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and local resident Routledge summons up her Gorgon’s glare and her comic timing for a reprise. The result is something of a curate’s egg.
A Visit from Miss Prothero is a slight piece, in which trademark Bennett words such as “chiropodist”, “truss” and “Crimplene” pepper a predictable mix of outrageous sallies and deep-seated sadness. Mr Dodsworth, the reliable Edward Petherbridge, is compensating for his wife’s death with courses in pottery and cordon bleu cookery until Miss Prothero pays her unsettling visit. The little nuggets are there – “I’ll leave my hat on. I don’t want a sinus do again” – but the pace is pedestrian and the predatory nature of a spinster’s visit to a fresh widower is underplayed.
Doris and Doreen, now retitled Green Forms, is a much weightier work. The two custodians of the Precepts and Invoices department pass their time in good natured bickering; familiar gossip about Doris’s mother’s battle with the commode and Doreen’s husband’s forced rhubarb; and the machinations of office politics, in particular the wandering basin plug.
But intimations from the real world, in particular the new computer systems at Newport Pagnell, get ever closer and, as the tension mounts, director Edward Kemp contrives a denouement as impressive as the climax to Don Giovanni.
Routledge, as the self-satisfied, vulnerable, Doreen, gives an impressive physical dimension to the humour, and is well-matched by Janet Dale as her complacent superior, pride battling with uncertainty to pathetic effect. Bennett, in this short play, beautifully recreates 1970s Britain, with all its good natured complacency and blissful ignorance.
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