Wednesday 13 March 2013

Daisy Pulls It Off

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Written by Denise Deegan

Directed by Thom Southerland

Daisy ( Holly Dale Spencer) is made Head Girl
Denise Deegan’s Daisy Pulls It Off, revived by Ovation at Highgate’s Upstairs At The Gatehouse is an excellently performed piece of theatre, that stylistically has nonetheless been left bobbing in the wake of more recent dramatic creations. First presented in the West End in 1983, where it ran for three years, it portrays a (literally) jolly hockey sticks world of an upper-crust English girls' school in the 1920s. But where Daisy Pulls It Off, some thirty years ago, lovingly overtook the St Trinians’ genre, so in these times and to varying degrees have Harry Potter and Matilda Wormwood sharpened our expectations of the role of the English public school as a source of entertainment, whilst Maria Aitken's The 39 Steps has set the bar in defining pastiche of England between the wars.  Where those productions brimmed with both humour and social comment, this show is little more than a quaint collection of plummy caricatures, likely to be of entertainment value only to stereotype-seeking American tourists or  softly natured locals. Director Southerland has a recent track record that glitters with stimulating stunning productions, but whilst this cast most definitely sparkles, the underlying show lacks fizz.

The actors do however make a fantastic job of the material. Holly Dale Spencer, fresh out of The Old Vic’s Kiss Me Kate, leads the line as Daisy Meredith. Her role is enormous, onstage almost throughout, maintaining her persevering character and flapping voice convincingly including a particularly demanding clifftop rescue (think Enid Blyton’s Famous Five) towards the play’s end. Notwithstanding that the story is tosh, Spencer remains sufficient of a trouper to still command our sympathy with her plight, as like Potter and Wormwood she tries against insurmountable odds to fit in and make friends with her schoolchums. With a nod to the St Trinians’ style of comedy, Southerland has chosen to mix in veteran actresses as the senior schoolgirls alongside the more recent drama school graduates. This idea certainly has a novelty appeal but the concept would have worked better if the elder ladies had been more well-known or household names, to enhance the ridiculous pantomime nature of their gym-slipped schoolgirl roles. Whilst their performances to a woman, are all outstanding, Paddy Glynn and Norma Atallah in particular, outside the bubble of theatre-land these esteemed actresses lack a widespread recognition and the joke factor of their age quickly wears thin.

In what is a classy acknowledgement of Alastair Sim's acting genius, Adam Venus is the show’s comic star, creating the few genuine laughs of the night with each of his scenes that he also cannot help but steal.  James Yeoburn puts in more of a turn as a scene shifter than as the school's Russian music teacher, moving a wheeled staircase around the stage that bears more than a nod to Southerland’s Mack & Mabel where such steps and platform were used wonderfully. Here they seem cumbersome.

Joanna Cichonska is simply a delight on piano. Providing background music ranging from classic school day hymns to some enchanting Dvorak interpretations, she also adds to the moments of faux-suspense brilliantly and this young Polish woman (who surely soon should have her own night at Lauderdale House or similar) continues to prove herself as a ridiculously talented musician.

When early in the second act of Daisy, Gillian Mcafferty’s character Trixie comments that its “beastly boring being stuck in here” her words have a resonance with the audience that the writer could not possibly have intended. The show is an odd choice for Ovation, who like Southerland, have wowed in recent years and months. It’s a throwback to a different era of writing, and is probably best enjoyed by those seeking little more than a mild evening’s entertainment. For this production, set your expectations of wisdom and mirth to low but then sit back to nonetheless enjoy the performances of a superb cast.

Runs to 14th April 2013

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