Writer: Dorothy L. Sayers
Director: Tom Littler
Jermyn Street Theatre can claim a coup; a rare staging of a little-known Dorothy L. Sayers play from 1939 opens its autumn season. Not seen in London for 80 years – although it was staged by Cambridge students in February – Love All is a refreshing antidote to all those contemporaneous drawing room comedies filled with romantic misunderstandings until true love wins out. Sayers is far more interested in her female characters finding true fulfilment in their work.
Having eloped to Venice with his mistress Lydia, 18 months on, novelist Godfrey still hasn’t obtained a divorce from wife Edith and the relationship is starting to fray. When a chance encounter with an old friend offers Lydia a return to the stage to work for eminent new playwright Janet, Godfrey makes his own excuses for some days away. The group accidentally reconvene in London where Godfrey is no longer in the spotlight.
Although described as a parody in the programme notes, the opening act of Sayers’ play doesn’t seem particularly remarkable; a couple who are clearly tired of each other, sulk and whine for a while before hatching separate plots to escape. It’s a farce not dissimilar to the conclusion of Private Lives in which Elyot and Amanda try to sneak away. But it places Godfrey at the heart of a man’s world, one where he is the romantic novelist, centre of every woman’s devoted attention while he wallows in their adoration.
Acts Two and Three are far sparkier, dislodging Godfrey from his pedestal and enjoying the busy theatrical scene in the West End. It may be another drawing room but this one, belonging to Janet, is a bustling place of telephone calls, visitors and activity, all of it built around a woman’s work. Sayers certainly doesn’t mince words, lampooning the saintly notion that being a wife and mother is all a woman needs, and creating intellectual, successful and rational women in Janet and Lydia who run rings around the increasingly hapless Godfrey.
There is lots of fun to be had in Sayers’ witty one-liners and, as the petulant and patronising Godfrey is described by his wife as an “unconvincing character in a book”, the women become allies rather than unnecessary rivals, weighing up what to do with him. There is much to admire in Sayers’ writing and its feminist messaging, although the outcomes of the drama itself are often well signposted in advance while its conventional three act structure is rather repetitive as characters have versions of the same exchange just at different times of day.
Leah Whitaker’s Janet is particularly enjoyable, shaking off the woman she used to be and refusing to sacrifice her newfound happiness and meaning for a man. Emily Barber’s Lydia starts as a clichéd kept woman but develops a pleasing agency as the play unfolds. Bethan Cullinane gives an understated performance as assistant Mary Birch whose own secrets cause the women to reflect “you never can tell what might be going on inside a secretary.” Alan Cox’s Godfrey is rather outnumbered, but it is entertaining to watch his superiority descend into emotional outbursts as he is easily outmanoeuvred.
There are some rather antiquated views of Italians that are very much of their time that could have been excised without any cost to the plot and Love All in tone and style is still a fairly traditional period piece. But with smart dual design by Louie Whitemore that conjures up 1930s Venice and London, Tom Littler’s final production for the Jermyn Street Theatre is an enjoyable one.
Runs until 8 October 2022