At the terminus of her celebrated life the renowned actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, is stranded. Unable to head home because of quarantine rules she is waiting for a train in Toulouse to take her south and away from the approaching German invasion.
Here we encounter one of the most formidable women in English theatre as she talks about her life, loves, great roles and missed chances.
Anton Burge’sMrs Pat, which opened tonight in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, is a remarkable 95-minute monologue delivered with panache, warmth and wit by one of our best loved actresses, Penelope Keith.
Who better to give voice to a star of the stage, and occasionally screen, who was a stickler for perfect diction? Ms Keith’s wonderful, beautifully enunciated speech, would have delighted Stella, Mrs Patrick, Campbell.
It’s 1940, just a few months, as it happens, before Mrs Pat’s death at the age of 75. Now a faded beauty, and with work long since dried up, she has resorted to giving lectures on the art of acting and beautiful speech.
But now she is fleeing with her faithful companion, a Peke called Moonbeam (a splendid, if animated, performance courtesy of Toby Olié) – if only the train would arrive.
Simon Higlett’s atmospheric set conjures up the flavour of the French train station with one of its walls used for video projections linked to the dialogue.
There are those who may not have heard of Mrs Patrick Campbell. Born in 1865 she went on the stage, without any formal training, to pay off debts and support her two young children.
She was soon lauded as one of England’s great talents of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras, who was renowned for her leading roles in Hedda Gabler and The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
She played Ophelia and Juliet, and tackled Sophocles, Ibsen and Euripides alongside Shakespeare. George Bernard Shaw even wrote Pygmalion for her to play Eliza Doolittle.
But the forthright Campbell was her own worst enemy, clashing with writers, directors and producers. On her brief forays into the cinema she managed to upset almost everyone she worked with. Discretion was not part of her repertoire.
Self-possessed, wry, cynical and disarmingly honest, we get to know the full theatre of this great lady’s life in director Alan Strachan’s absorbing production.
She name-drops (Sarah Bernhardt, Johnny Guilgud, Norma Shearer) and gives withering put-downs of their talent or makes us privy to her relationship with them (she was almost certain Shaw’s lover).
It is a peach of a role for a mature leading lady and Penelope Keith is brimming with confidence and stage presence as she brings Mrs Pat to life, painting a colourful, charming, funny, and affectionate portrait. It is a supremely skilled performance and one that is a real delight to watch.
There are some wonderfully Wildean lines for the hard-up Mrs Pat. I particularly like: “The fate of a tour de force is that she is forced to tour”.
Penelope Keith gives her own unmissable tour de force performance in the redoubtable Mrs Pat.
Playing at the Minerva until November 7.
The remarkable and beautifully spoken Penelope Keith delivers a tour de force as the redoubtable stage actress Mrs Pat in Anton Burge's new play at Chichester's Minerva Theatre.