(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 16 February)
Poppy+George? It sounds like an equation with a positive outcome. Poppy-George? That sounds altogether more negative. Poppy? George? This suggests two people each going on a separate path, that might – or might not – coincide. Diane Samuels’ latest play poses more questions than it offers solutions.
It’s 1919. The war to end all wars has ground to a formal halt, though its repercussions reverberate internationally. The location is London, in a tailoring-costumier workshop run by Smith (Jacob Krichefski), an emigré Russian Jew. He caters, among others, for female impersonator Tommy Jones (Mark Rice-Oxley) and society chauffeur George Sampson ((Rebecca Oldfield).
Fresh from the north of England with a determination to forge a new and proper life for herself comes Mary Louisa Wright (Nadia Clifford), a bright lass who prefers to be called Poppy. She learns to hold her own with both Smith and Jones – but with George? Their relationship, how it blossoms and how it withers, makes the drama.
You can’t fault the acting or the production values. Rice-Oxley takes you to the heart of music-hall as well as the fall-out from service in the trenches. Oldfield makes a marvellously androgynous George, well in with his employers and ambitious to become a racing driver. Krichefski convinces as the footloose man with too many pasts who still holds to the possibilities of the future – somewhere, somehow, sometime.
Clifford makes embryonic suffragette Poppy a girl who knows that her new path will probably be a rocky one (so different from the conventionality of her home background and the lifetime of service which is all it can offer). She wants honesty, not make-believe whether of the theatrical, fashion or intimate relationship types. There will be a price to pay, however.
Designer Ruari Murchinson has raked the stage steeply and produced a variety of costumes and fabric rolls to surround the actors. Director Jennie Darnell keeps the whole thing on the move in a valiant attempt to make this a play about human beings and not just types. Composer and sound designer Gwyneth Herbert adds a haunting accompaniment which echoes both the jollity and the sentimentality of popular music of the period.
Poppy+George runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 29 February with matinées on 18, 20, 25 and 27 February.