What is a play? A message to the future, a fart in your face or a pain in the arse? Just a few of the suggestions that the writer clients of agent Peggy Ramsay offer up when a young ingenue asks that fatal question in her office one otherwise ordinary day. Hampstead Theatre’s latest anniversary revival is a cheeky celebration of the business of playmaking in a smart, female-led piece from 1999 but set in the late 60s, and as Covid cancellations begin to rise once again, this affectionate satire may be fairly cosy but Peggy for You is a hopeful place to end the year.
Staged for the Hampstead Theatre by Richard Wilson, there is a deceptive layer to Alan Plater’s play which begins as a fairly standard three act Drawing Room comedy before twisting into something with a far greater punch in its final section. It takes place across two rooms in Peggy’s office which split the stage in half; on the right, the plain reception area with visible toilet where assistant Stephanie (referred to in what appears to be characteristic Peggy style as ‘Tessa’ throughout) has a desk. The room on the left is far grander, noticeably period with a warmer, furnished Living Room or Study feel which is Peggy’s own space to receive her clients.
Though connected by a central door, these distinct zones speak well to the separation in the play between the glamorous front of being in the theatre as an art form with its romantic list of famous names, opening night parties and adorable luvvies, and the practical reality of business and contracts. Equally, James Cotterill’s design choices draws distinct lines between the way Peggy sees herself and the rather utilitarian view she has of others and their role in her business (quite distinct from her role in their writing!). This appreciation of Peggy becomes one of the drivers in a play that moves from comedy to a more introspective and openly dramatic engagement with concepts of personality, professionalism and loyalty as the story unfolds.
It begins by placing Peggy herself in hero mode, and writer Alan Plater is asking the audience to recognise her authority, to feel as in awe of her imposing personality, skill and manner as new writer Simon does. For much of the first two Acts, we see her through his eyes as an eminent, impressive, even overbearing figure who controls everyone around her while keeping an encyclopaedia of drama knowledge in her head to be drawn out with ease as the occasion arises – a case in point being the correction of a short but pivotal quote from Henry IV.
And much of Peggy for You is very witty about life in the theatre with throwaway references to swearing at Laurence Olivier, the shame of selling out to Hollywood, the easy money to be made writing terrible drama for television or newspaper columns, and plenty of sage advice for budding writers from those jaded and battered by their own careers. All of this is bolstered by the appearance of several of Peggy’s clients in her office, giving Simon (still sitting quietly in the background) a unique position from which to observe his new agent’s changing manner depending on the youth and success of her charges.
Plater creates a sense, at least early on, that some kind of farce is likely in the manner of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, that having traded witty bon mots in the first two Acts, that some ridiculous mix-up or light-hearted scheme will follow that will have Peggy careering from room to room, taking increasingly fraught calls and trying to resolve a hilarious muddle. Instead, Plater does something almost unexpected, he sends Peggy off-stage for several minutes at the end of Act Two leaving two of her clients alone.
It signals a rather remarkable change in tone – one which director Richard Wilson manages with skill – that defines the remainder of the play as Simon and toast-of-the-town Philip start to pull at Peggy’s character, the latter noting her faults and warning his companion of the pitfalls to come. Having built Peggy up to the audience, given her sparkling dialogue and a seemingly unsurpassable professional expertise, suddenly removing her from the action in order to undertake a critical assessment of her by uncovering the veiled frustrations and disappointments that her behaviour evokes in others, Plater swiftly moves the story into a slightly different gear and one that leaves its comic trajectory aside.
The Third Act is far more revelatory than the early scenes implied, and Plater seeks to almost actively disrupt the comfortable inevitability of the play he started to write. Instead there is both character assassination and justification in the final section as the consequences of the ideas and behaviours seeded in the play are turned against Peggy in an accusatory conversation with established writer Henry whose arrival she had dismissed earlier that day. And Plater starts to grapple with what happens beneath the surface as Peggy is momentarily asked to reckon with her equivalent of Scrooge’s spirits (all in the guise of Henry) who come to challenge her way of being.
And what emerges is a character of far greater depth and contradictions than the playwright has thus far allowed us to see in spite of placing her at the centre of the story. So who is Peggy – a real agent fictionalised by Plater for this play who demands most of the oxygen in the room. Intimidated by no one and more than willing to speak her mind to anyone who she believes needs to hear it, Peggy is an uncompromising, unforgiving and, in every sense, brilliant woman. She knows she is right, always admits any mistake she may have made but never apologises for the offense she causes – most amusingly in a line noting a mix-up of National Theatre Directors who are blasted by her contempt; she confesses her mistake in launching a volley at the wrong one, yet is clearly equally satisfied, or it would be fairer to say equally unperturbed, to have insulted either of them.
What is so enduringly fascinating about this creation is her charisma which, in spite of her rather brazen ignorance of silly details like people’s actual names and widespread dismissal of the industry she works for, gives Peggy a different kind of chemistry to every other character in the play and there several points at which Plater emphasises her vast knowledge of the work she has read and promoted. This is the crux of her own motivation; artists come and go, their personal needs are immaterial, it is the work that she strives for.
We see this again and again in a photographic memory for particular quotations, correcting others as well as bastardising and colloquialising well-known phrases as part of her own patter. The most powerful example of Peggy’s prioritisation of the work comes in the final confrontation with Henry who continues to nurture the seed that Philip planted at the end of Act Two, by openly chastising Peggy in Act Three and declaiming her faults. As Plater momentarily suggests a reclamation story may emerge to transform this hardened woman by showing her her own reflection, Peggy’s force of personality hits back, reciting the synopsis and venue of multiple plays picked at random from her files based on the title alone, proving to Henry that she is as good at her job and as devoted to the definition of a play as the audience has been prepped to believe.
But what emerges in the final portion of the play adds yet another conflicting edge to Peggy’s personality, a coldness and detachment that may seem shocking on the one hand because it not only accentuates the characteristics displayed so far, but pushes them to the ultimate extreme. Yet, it unexpectedly adds further insight as Plater gives the agent a single moment of pause alone in the office taking stock of the events of this single day where she betrays a flicker of hurt that begins to turn almost two hours of performance on its head. Is she human after all; is the battle-hardened, carefree front merely a suit of armour that Peggy must put on to deal with the barrage of entitled men (and it is only ever men) that she must meet, call, inspire and manage in the unfriendly world of 1960s theatre? She may seem cruel for sneering at her assistant’s tears but showing any kind of emotion or weakness could ruin her reputation, so, just for a second before the façade goes back up, the audience is shown the struggle Peggy has had to keep her business afloat and the life she has had to live to stay at the top of her game.
Tamsin Greig is ideally cast as the title character, a great stage actor who instinctively and quite carefully treads the line between comedy and tragedy in all her performances with a unique skill for making the audience feel deeply for even the most ridiculous characters. This ability to almost command pathos at precise moments in a play is really valuable and here as Peggy she saves it up for those last moments where the audience has already seen Peggy from Simon’s point of view as a hero, through Henry’s eyes as a soulless villain detached from reality, but in just those few moments Greig shows us Peggy as she sees herself, where the impact of it all cuts deep in a private moment, and you do feel for her.
Greig is also exceptionally funny in the rest of the play, candid and cutting in equal measure, exuding self-confidence and certainty as she flitters from call to call, able to turn on the charm when needed while almost skating over the surface of all these other lives she encounters. Greig is commanding in the role, delivering the witty one-liners with savage precision and moulding Peggy’s personality to suit the tone of her callers, she never misses a comic beat while making all of the changes of pace – from potential farce to drama and then tragedy – feel like a consistent journey across a day in the life of Peggy Ramsay.
The supporting cast orbit around her, giving Greig a series of credible interactions making Peggy for You more than a star vehicle. Josh Finan as 21-year old aspiring writer Simon is full of the seriousness of youth, keen to get her to read his melancholy little play being performed above a pub and while in awe of Peggy’s energy and intelligence, Finan makes space for Simon’s slightly earnest openness, a willingness to absorb the lessons Peggy dishes out that ultimately wins her over. Jos Vantyler as Philip is a little too suave perhaps as the bright young thing currently burning up the spotlight, as though he has stepped out of a Noel Coward which doesn’t feel quite right for the times, but Trevor Fox’s Henry becomes quite a match for Peggy in Act Three as he channels years of neglect and rage. Finally, Danusia Samal makes a great deal of Tessa who tries to keep her occasionally scatter-brained boss in line in the play’s most practical and grounded female role.
Peggy for You may not be the sharpest comedy and it is a structurally ‘safe’ piece in many ways, but Plater finds ways to work against audience expectation as the story unfolds, bringing to life a rarely dramatised aspect of the business in a memorable central character who we can only hope behaved exactly like this in real life. A play that takes such joy in the process, politics and consequences of writing for the stage is a positive conclusion to another troubled year for theatres and, as the curtain comes down, it leaves you certain that whatever a play may be, all the highs and lows are worth it in the end.