The irascible Mrs Patrick Campbell was an intrinsic part of the fin de siecle theatre scene. Despite finding fame in Shaw’s Pygmalion and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, this abrasive non-conformist was never accepted by the establishment, and she struggled with debt and depression. Anton Burge’s new biography finds her late in life, reminiscing as she waits for the last train she’ll ever take.
Having written eight plays on similarly complex women, Burge often lets Campbell speak for herself, packing his script with acerbic quotations. Early on, she quips about the contemporaries who “brushed the hem of her career”, most of whom are far more familiar to modern audiences than her. There is an undeniable pleasure to be had from a script which references everyone from Gielgud to Bernhardt to Beerbohm Tree, but this enthusiasm to include everything occasionally overwhelms the story.
The show isn’t helped by the overwrought design. A mildly ridiculous puppet pekingese and a slideshow of grainy photographs add little, though Simon Higlett’s moody set proves far more effective, using piled sandbags and classic French posters to evoke the interwar setting.
Though muted at times, Penelope Keith is wonderfully cast, demonstrating a formidable bearing and exceptionally crisp diction – which does not lessen the impression of watching a lecture rather than a play. It isn’t until the shorter, tighter second act that she reveals the frustrated dreamer behind the icy facade. Fittingly, we’re shown that at the end of her life, and among the ashes of two centuries, Mrs Pat still kept some embers of her former brilliance burning.