A day in the life of Peggy Ramsay, the most celebrated play agent of her time. Set in her chaotic office, Peggy for You is a gloriously witty, wry and unsentimental account of this extraordinary woman as she takes on principalities, powers, producers and, above all, playwrights. Eccentric, intimidating, contradictory and inspiring, she ruled an anarchic roost, including dramatists as famous and diverse as Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, Christopher Hampton, Henry Livings, Stephen Poliakoff, Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond and, for thirty years, Plater himself. Mail on Sunday critic Georgina Brown described the play as: “Witty, affectionate and keenly observed, the play captures a gloriously eccentric spirit, bursting with remarkable, exasperating and undeniably vile traits…A hugely entertaining lesson in good writing…”. The play premiered at the Hampstead Theatre, London, 23 November 1999.
Visiting a particular theatre for the first time, especially to see a play one has never previously seen nor even heard of, gives the reviewer a certain extra edge of expectancy. When asked to write some words about the play, I was in a quandary. Should I research the subject matter? Should I read the script first? I felt that without either I might be ill-equipped; might even not understand the play at all – and then where would I begin! I reasoned, however, that I should put myself in the situation of the audience, many of whom would presumably also know little or nothing about the play they were to see.
So it was that we entered the auditorium to be confronted with a gloriously cluttered split-level set representing the offices of Peggy Ramsay, Literary Agent. I must at once commend all the tech crew at COPS for the overall impression this gave. It told us straight away that here were relatively poky offices belonging to a very busy yet thoroughly disorganised woman. Files were scattered over every available surface, and where this was exhausted over the floor too. I felt the right note of general shabbiness had been achieved, and despite much effort I failed to spot anything anachronistic, décor included, in a very ‘busy’ set. Well done indeed.
I wondered early on whether the narrow stairs separating the upper and lower acting areas would cause the cast difficulties. My fears were allayed as it became apparent that all the cast were well acquainted with the set and how to use it. This is an important feature of amateur theatre that is often overlooked and can result in cast only being able to rehearse on the ‘real’ set a week or two before performances start.
However, to the play itself. Alan Plater, who was himself one of Peggy’s playwright clients for some thirty years, has managed to condense many undoubtedly fairly real events that occurred over several years into one fictitious ‘day-in-the-life’. He gives us Peggy the agent as all her clients will variously have encountered her – warts and all. For Peggy can be charming, snarling, loving, spiteful, concerned, foul-mouthed, contradictory, intimidating – but above all a brilliant agent capable of spotting a good play from far off. We get the impression that it is the clients who need her, not the other way around. Yet in the glimpses we get of the soft centre underneath the cold exterior, there is a sense of genuine sorrow as Peggy contrives to lose not one but two clients in the same day, whilst acquiring a new rising star.
Peggy was played by Claudia McKelvey, and what a tour de force this actress brought to the part. On stage virtually throughout, and with a very wordy part to learn, she brought the essence of her character to life. Although portraying an early irritability, we learn that this was perhaps excusable given that she had been up half the night getting a client out of police custody, and putting up the bail herself. Hence she starts a new day already half exhausted having caught a few hours’ nap on the office sofa. As the day gets into gear we are introduced to a succession of characters whose fortune (or misfortune?) it has been to cross Peggy’s threshold. First we encounter the shy Simon, whose first ever play is scheduled for its world premiere that evening in a room above a North London pub. At first I was uncertain about the casting of Mark James in this role, as somehow he didn’t seem quite ‘right’ for the character we learnt about. However he turned the part into a lovely humorous character role, not least by use of some astute facial expressions and an air of frequent bewilderment. Simon never seemed to know exactly where he stood where Peggy was concerned, as although she gave him a lot of her time, she was usually so busy doing other things that he rarely got the attention he needed.
Into the action steps Philip, who is already a successful playwright also being premiered that evening. He has an adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the National or some such, and fully expects Peggy to accompany him to this – after he has taken her to lunch first. Matt Francis here portrayed a somewhat stuffy Philip with competence, although there was something about his air of formality that was perhaps a little too unbending. By way of contrast the third of Peggy’s clients, Henry, played with conviction and not a little malice by Andy Kirtley, has come to tell Peggy he’s leaving her agency. Not only is he not enjoying the success he used to, but he finds it unforgivable that Peggy has forgotten his latest play. Peggy tries to change his mind, blaming the flood of new manuscripts arriving daily for this serious oversight.
As the first act draws to a close and the second begins, we see the hard, cynical side of Peggy nakedly exposed. For we hear that the writer she had got released from jail has committed suicide: news she appears to absorb without concern, without remorse. Claudia McKelvey handled this transition well, and showed us as one of her clients puts it “you’re impossible!” She retorts “Who wants to be possible?” She certainly didn’t appear to want to be seen to be caring, and yet as the newspaper editors ring for stories on the suicide, and ask for obituaries, it is to Henry she turns for the well-paid task of writing these. The fifth member of the cast played by Ros Saint Clare was Tessa, Peggy’s secretary cum factotum cum organiser. It must have taken a very special kind of person indeed to work for Peggy for long, and whether this character was Plater’s own concoction or an amalgam of various real life characters I do not know. Ros gave us a character who was usually in control of far more than Peggy ever managed whilst neatly portraying the young 60’s era Girl Friday. Similarly, Plater more than likely drew upon real characters whose lives Peggy Ramsay had irrevocably touched to provide the basis for the three playwrights.
Minor criticisms seem churlish. Why do two people struggle to carry a small square of carpet a few feet when one lifted it effortlessly a little earlier? was one note I made. But all in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of good theatre, ably directed by Barry Lee and assisted throughout by seamless backstage work. Peggy herself, I am sure, would have been touched by Alan Plater’s fond tribute to a remarkable woman.