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Daisy Pulls It Off

by on 3 June 2018

Absolutely Spiffing … Just Terrific!!

Daisy Pulls It Off

by Denise Deegan

Questors Theatre, The Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing, until 9th June

Review by Mark Aspen

“Uncommonly topping” are the remarks that are going into the end-of-term report for Questors’ delightful school-room spoof, Daisy Pulls It Off (or “Orff” if we adhere to the Headmistress’s proper pronunciation). And, of course, we must obey the Headmistress, as the audience soon finds out, as we are admonished by be-gowned monitors in mortar-boards to “hurry along to assembly”. We enter an auditorium transmogrified into the great hall of Grangewood School for Girls, an establishment for the education of young ladies of a certain type of upbringing.

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Daunting enough for us audience “new girls”, it is more so for young Daisy Meredith, who has gained the first-ever scholarship to Grangewood. Worse, not all of the established pupils at Grangewood welcome a newcomer who has entered their revered portals from an elementary school (pause to sneer) rather than the usual route via prep with the help of pater and mater’s privilege and money. However, it is 1927 and things are changing, and Daisy is excitedly looking forward to learning Latin and Greek and becoming a “shining example of true English girlhood”. In these aspirations, she has been warmly supported by her widowed mother and her four brothers, Douglas, Daniel, David and Duncan.

Questors has taken the bold move of reviving its production of Daisy Pulls It Off of a quarter of a century ago, and recreating Norman Barwick’s original set design of 1993. Grangewood’s oak panelling, grand double staircase, and roll of honour plaque of head girls from 1912 to 1926 are all faithfully and effectively recreated by Stephen Souchon, and atmospherically lit by John Green. The original music of Paul Clark has been supplemented by musical director Graham Reid, who plays the piano live from high above the pass doors, and appropriately so, for the singing of rousing hymns and of course the school anthem are actively encouraged at Grangewood (and the audience equally actively coerced).

In the spirit of the revival, one of the 1993 cast, Phillip Sheahan, reprises his role as Mr Scoblowski, the music teacher, an enigmatic Russian émigré. Enigmas abound at Grangewood, for the school building was the ancestral home of Sir Digby Beaumont, who in fit of a pique at his young son, Sir David, tore down Sir David’s portrait and, it is said, hid all the Beaumont treasure somewhere in the building. Now the Beaumonts are forced to sell the estate to the school governors, although Sir Digby’s late elder son’s granddaughter, Clare, is head girl at Grangewood. Then there is the enigma of the gardener, Mr Thompson, who is always quietly whistling Ar Hyd y Nos.

Grangewood is situated majestically on a cliff above a chill sea, just right for bracing walks and exhilarating early-morning dips in the sea, all chaperoned of course. Mens sana in corpore sano, what! And the corpore sano is of course best exercised by hockey … sorry, jolly hockey. Mens sana is imposed, intellectually and morally, by the starched teaching staff, who like most starched items, are unbending. So are fixed rules and regulations, and honesty and honour.

Presiding over all is the Headmistress, Miss Gibson, a stickler for the rules, for after all the school’s motto in honesta quam magna, the right deed over the great deed. Ceri Jones is appropriately magisterial in the role, whilst allowing little chinks of humanity to shine through. Equally a martinet, Miss Granville, the Upper Fourth’s form mistress, rules with a steely glance, but has a shrewdness born of experience. Anne Neville, Questors’ Artistic Director, has this part to a tee; especially with her Gorgon-esque stares. She, incidentally, was instrumental in bringing the 1993 production to Questors, when even then she was on the play selection committee. The other Daisy veteran, Phillip Sheahan, gives a marvellous mix of bonhomie and bite as the baton wielding Mr Scoblowski, with his clandestine quest for the missing millions. These three actors skilfully flesh out what could otherwise be two-dimensional caricatures.

The Grangewood girls tend to go around in pairs, as may always be the case in girl’s schools, and we can observe that like attracts like in the half-dozen girls of the upper fourth.

DaisyPullsItOffSocialMedia00008Form Captain, Belinda Mathieson, who has the hard task of keeping the form in order and ensuring fair play, befriends Dora Johnson, who exists in a state of perpetual bemusement at all the goings-on. Severine Simone’s picture of controlled exasperation, as Belinda, contrasts nicely with Lindsay Patterson’s unchecked gobsmacked-ness.

DaisyPullsItOffSocialMedia00003Then there are the Upper Fourth’s rotters, and they are clearly rotters because they don’t like playing hockey, or playing the game in general. In fact it’s more playing up than playing the game. Sybil Burlington is the school bully. Being a girl’s school the bullying tends to be more psychological than physical and Sybil is a past-master at it. Her side-kick is Monica Smithers, the super toady of the school. Georgie Turner and Lisa Varty fully relish these roles, bringing out all the saurian squirminess of the pair, for Sybil and Monica’s machinations would make Machiavelli blush. Their sole aim, fuelled by a potent mix of snobbery and envy, is to get the “elementary school interloper” expelled.

DaisyPullsItOffSocialMedia00002Then there are the heroines, the eponymous Daisy and her chum Trixie Martin, a quirky “poetess”, who hits it off with Daisy right from square one when they become inseparably supportive pals. Charlotte Sparey brings an effervescent energy to the role of Trixie and to the vivacious attraction of the character. Daisy and Trixie hatch an adventure together, with the goal of finding the lost Beaumont treasure and they adopt the motto hinc spes effulget (here hope shines). Note that at Grangewood everyone speaks in Latin or in alliterations (which I thought was the realm of the theatre critic!).

At the top of the school, the Head Girl, Clare Beaumont and her Deputy, Alice Fitzpatrick exercise much authority and, it must be added, moral leadership. Clare, in spite of carrying the burden of the Beaumont misfortunes, constantly tells the girls to “buck up, kiddies” in a rather matronly way. She is quite a force in the school, although at one point admitting that she is not looking forward to becoming a “proper adult”. Alice adds much wisdom and Celtic fringe spiritual support to the head girl double act. Julia Marques and Nicole Kerr are dynamic and completely believable in these roles.

The part of Daisy Meredith is a difficult one, taking an audience forward with a concept that here is a lovely unassuming innocent girl, who it seems excels in everything she does, without it ever going to her head, or show anything but resilient kindness even when being abused by her peers, and always being honest and never being vindictive. Charlotte Thompson succeeds impeccably in captivating the audience, acting with great charm and veracity. Even your seasoned reviewer found himself feeling for this character and really concerned at the outcome, in spite of knowing it was a spoof of too-good-to-be-true. Hence, we accept that Daisy excels at languages (her mother, lately having been opera singers, taught her French and Italian), poetry, English, music (Thompson does have an enviable singing voice) and also at jolly hockey.

You can probably guess that it all turns out well in the end, but it is more so than you might expect. Along the way, truth wins out, fortunes are restored, and even the baddies’ lives are saved from a cliff tragedy.


The cast, which is complemented by Annabel Spinks-Jones, as both Daisy’s mother and the schools’ French assistante; Zara Hemati as Winnie Irving, a Second-Former; and Tristan Marsahll as Mr Thompson the gardener; works as an integral ensemble, which is one of the strengths of this production. Another strength is that the spoof becomes lightly so: the tongue is in the cheek, but we don’t see the bulge. If it were spelt out that this were a parody, it would undermine the excitement of piece. Much credit in this respect must undoubtedly go to the director, David Emmet.

I would not have thought that a spoof could be so gripping. I certainly didn’t expect to get excited by a hockey match, but now I know that the tactics are to “play as a team and keep passing the ball”. I think this serves as a metaphor for this play.

Keep the good work up gals (and the chaps too). Bully for you for a tremendous show: absolutely spiffing, I’d say. Now, where did I put those report forms …

Mark Aspen
June 2018

Photography by Rishi Rai

 

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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