Today, British author Dorothy L. Sayers is mainly remembered for her “Lord Peter Wimsey” series of ‘gentleman detective’ novels written between 1923 and 1937. Mildly satiric of the British upper classes, these novels compare favourably with those of her contemporary, Agatha Christie. Christie’s “Poirot” series has, of course, enjoyed a long popularity, but Sayers’ writing is perhaps a bit more cerebral (her critics have said self–consciously literary); Sayers having the distinction of being one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University.
The works of both authors are peopled by the “bright young things” of 1920’s and ‘30’s Mayfair. Those familiar with the Mitford sisters, Cecil Beaton and Noel Coward, will understand the models for their characters. Sayers detective stories often have a somewhat autobiographical flavour, with the character of Harriet Vane in the “Peter Wimsey” series sharing many similarities with Sayers herself, notably her profession as a successful detective novelist and Oxford education.
These works proved popular enough to remain in the public consciousness for decades, having inspired two separate BBC/PBS TV series. Garnering acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, “Lord Peter Wimsey” featuring Ian Carmichael, dramatized four of the novels and was broadcast between 1973 and 1975. A later series, produced in 1987 featured Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane.
However, Ms. Sayers didn’t confine herself to writing mystery novels. Between 1935 and 1951 she also penned 10 play scripts. The sixth of these, Love All (1940) is currently on offer in a production by The Aldershot Players. This is a laudable and somewhat daring choice as Sayers’ stage works are seldom produced.
In short, the plot of Love All ostensibly concerns itself (according to the TAP website) with: ‘the misadventures of a romance writer who’s run off with his mistress, only to have his world turned upside down when he discovers none of the women in his life live up to his perceptions of them.’
Act I introduces us to romance author Godfrey Daybrooke and his mistress Lydia Hillington in the dying stages of their love affair in a hired flat in Venice. Although we don’t meet Daybrooke’s wife, Edith until Act II, her ghost is omnipresent throughout, as the two lovers bicker over her during most of their dialogue. A major challenge in staging this play, is that Ms. Sayers, for all of her success as a mystery novelist has weighed down the whole first act with rather laborious exposition. This might have been overcome with brisk pacing and a light touch. Michael Hannigan as Daybrooke tends to the bombastic in his portrayal with a great deal of bluster and sputter, but little nuance. As Lydia, Tina Kocic may have fared better with less mugging and clearer enunciation. However, in Act III she seems to hit her stride and reveals a lighter touch. She’s not helped by director Gwendolyn Starks’ blocking which brings the characters downstage centre where, at key moments, they turn to directly face the audience as if to say: ‘alright, here comes a funny line’.
Act II is a breath of fresh air by comparison. In part, because the action shifts to London and we are spared the all–beige set, beige soft furnishings and mostly beige costumes of the principals. But more importantly because we finally meet Godfrey’s wife, Edith Daybrooke a.k.a. Janet Reed, her professional pseudonym since she’s become a successful playwright, once out from under the thumb of Godfrey’s (and society’s) expectations.
Director Starks has been fortunate in her casting of Kathy Hyde–Nagel in this pivotal role. She quickly emerges as the bright light and soul of this production. Ms. Hyde–Nagel well understands the genre, and has a natural gift for imbuing the text with the requisite light touch crucial to a period comedy of manners. She is also a virtuoso of subtlety and has mastered the art of the throwaway line.
In London, the supporting characters consist mostly of colourful theatre types and two well–cast secretaries. Standouts include Lauren Collis as Mary Birch, Godfrey’s secretary and Olivia Prunean as Stella Coppingham, Edith’s secretary.
Ms. Collis radiates energy and intelligence whenever she’s onstage, convincingly creating a third empowered female character for us to enjoy. Ms. Prunean gamely plays with voice modulation and cheeky facial expressions to convey the ethos of a put-upon secretary who can handle any task.
The remainder of the drama centers on sexual politics and is refreshing in its feminist view. It is filled with frothy wit and clever jibes at the inequality of the sexes. Eventually everything boils down to the two very capable lead women trying to decide which of them will be saddled with Godfrey in the end, which I will not spoil for you in this review.
If you’re a Sayers mystery fan, or a devotee of BBC/PBS period mysteries or comedies, this may be right up your street! V
by Dorothy L. Sayers
continues to November 2nd
The Aldershot Players
549 Plains Rd W.,
Call TAP: (905) 381-1441