The Lady From Dubuque, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Lady From Dubuque

I have come home for my daughter’s dying.
---- Elizabeth
The Lady From Dubuque
Maggie Smith as Elizabeth and Peter Francis James as Oscar
(Photo: John Haynes)
The Lady From Dubuque brings two great talents to the London stage, Dame Maggie Smith and the playwright Edward Albee. Sadly neither will be remembered for their part in this production. This play ran for a miserable 12 performances (after 18 preview performances) before it folded on Broadway in 1980. So why has the talented Anthony Page who directed the marvellous Kathleen Turner in the London revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf bothered reviving it? Is it the uphill challenge of a previously badly received Albee? Or something else?

The Lady From Dubuque almost falls into two different plays with its two acts very different in purpose and content. Act One is a domestic scene, a party where emaciated Jo (Catherine McCormack) is dying of cancer and uses a party to vent her anger on her guests. Her husband plays charades where he asks the question repeatedly, "Who am I" In a self conscious theatrical direction, the characters turn and address the audience in uncomfortable and action pausing asides. There is Jo’s husband, Sam (Robert Sella) who busies himself trying to care for Jo. Their friends, the waspish Lucinda (Vivienne Benesh) and philanthropic Edgar (Chris Larkin), red neck Fred (Glen Fleshler) with his new girlfriend, Carol (Jennifer Regan) are insulted and humiliated but not in an amusing or dramatic way. We are told that Albee was going through a period of alcoholism when he wrote this play and that of course is what Jo’s destructive behaviour seems to be, that of a vicious, mouthy drunk.

After all the guests have been baited and despatched, at the end of the first act there is the dramatic arrival of the mysterious woman (Maggie Smith) and her elegant and preening sidekick, Oscar (Peter Francis James). She claims to be Jo’s mother but is so far from the description that Jo has given of her New Jersey mother (fat, pink haired, never goes out) that this is simply not credible. Another explanation is that Jo is telling terrible lies, but this seems unlikely at a time when she has been embarrassingly frank and brutally honest about the limitations of each of her friends. Maggie Smith is meant to be from a very small place in Iowa but her English accent penetrates what little mid west accent she adopts. We conclude that the lady from Dubuque is in fact the angel of death here to comfort the dying Jo. The party guests drift back in but we are never quite sure why.

Peter Francis James is the most enjoyable aspect of this play although even he can get annoyingly repetitive in his camp pretension and his underlining of the prejudice afforded to black men. But I loved his dapper posing. He is always conscious of the audience’s reaction to his polished exterior and he looks flirtatiously towards the audience, aware of his handsome exterior and his designer suit. Maggie Smith does of course lend the piece some class. Much to Sam’s annoyance Jo does find some comfort in the arms of the lady from Dubuque as Maggie Smith manages to give comfort to the dying woman.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a fashionable and elegant Connecticut drawing room with the open staircase taking us up to another level but sadly the play stays grounded in the mire of pointlessness. The performances are good enough but wasted on a piece of Albee that should have been allowed to die quietly. The largely American cast seem to indicate that the play might have been Broadway bound. We shall see if it even makes a dozen performances.

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Anthony Page

Starring: Maggie Smith, Catherine McCormack, Peter Francis James
With: Vivienne Benesch, Robert Sells, Glenn Fleshler, Chris Larkin, Jennifer Regan
Set Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Design: Amy Roberts
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 400 0626
Booking to 9 June 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st March 2007 performance at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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