This play, first produced in 1955, is typical of the light comedies that were so popular at that time. It had a very successful run with a good cast and is probably one of the better examples of its type.
Looking at it from a 1999 standpoint it is interesting to see how much life has changed in nearly fifty years. This world of innocent young girls being presented at court, the trivial round of the London 'season', the idle young men with time on their hands and the scheming, snobbish match-making mothers is as unreal to us as is that of Lady Bracknell with her lists of eligible suitors and rigid social conventions.
In the fifties, of course, this world had already come to an end and a new style of drama was taking over, with the advent of the 'Angry Young Men' and their so-called 'kitchen-sink' plays. In fact in The Reluctant Debutante the daughter is beginning to rebel, and the father is gently critical of his wife's pretensions. This is not to say that in what is undoubtedly a harsher and more brutal climate we cannot enjoy looking back at what appears to us to be easier times.
To make the play a success great attention to detail is necessary in order to get the period setting right. On the whole this succeeded in this production. The set suggested a comfortable flat hired for the season, furnished in a suitable style for the times. The clothes were right; the women looked attractive and the men elegant.
The production needs a light touch and a good pace. We do not have to worry too much about the intricacies of the plot so we must be taken along with the dialogue and the laughs. This demands a slick style of acting which was achieved by some of the players, but the lack of experience in others made for unevenness. A little more acting technique would have improved some awkward moves and clumsiness in coping with props like food and drink.
Plays of this period always rely heavily on the telephone, and in this case mainly on Sheila. She handled these difficult passages brilliantly, making what could have been a tedious scene hilariously funny. (I must mention here that she was never let down by the sound effects - often a very real hazard).
Davina Foster's performance was well sustained throughout. She has to hold the first scene and this she managed well, bringing a lightness of touch and a variety of pace to her part. She was well supported by Chris Lawn as Jimmy, whose excellent timing ensured that he got all of his laughs. As the play developed, so did his portrayal of a much-tried husband, and his scene with Jane at the end was good.
Claire McCabe was a rather young and inexperienced Jane. She did not have the assurance that a girl of her social standing, who had undoubtedly been through finishing schools, would have had. Nor did she appear to be the 'horsey' type that was hinted at in the script. This is a difficult part for a 'debutante' actress. She needs to learn more acting technique although the later scenes with her father and David, which rely on sincerity, were more relaxed. She is an attractive, promising young actress who will gain in confidence.
Mabel and her daughter, Clarissa, were both convincing. Here, too, a talented actress, Jackie Lawn got the most out of the situations and her facial expressions always let us know what was going on in her mind. Lauren McKinnon as Clarissa brought out the agonies of adolescence and the awfulness of having a mother like Mabel. Her lack of acting experience was not such a handicap in this part.
The two young men were well matched. Andy Howell as David Bulloch handled his scenes well, especially when in his full regimental splendour, making this one of the funniest scenes in the play. His stiff bearing and his desperate attempts to make conversation contrasted well with the 'other' David, played by Charles Watts, who, if not exactly the smooth, sophisticated roue we were led to expect, came across as a pleasant, well-mannered young man. The sudden improvement in his social status, which made him acceptable, was well suggested in a modest way.
Another convention always followed in plays if this type is the inclusion of a maid - a very thankless part. Elizabeth Stokes had very little chance to develop a character but she made her mark!
The last word, of course, was from Sheila, with one of her inevitable telephone calls rounding off the evening; 'Seven thirty - well, till then.' I should have liked to see her reaction!
There was a lot to enjoy in this production by Graham Kilner, and the audience certainly made the most of it.
Jean Jolly taught English for many years at Simon Balle School. She has directed plays for both Ware Dramatic Society and Hertford Dramatic and Operatic Society.