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Master of fashion bares his soul

PUBLISHED: 15:50 14 March 2001 | UPDATED: 15:04 22 October 2010

Beau Brummell @ Theatre Royal, Norwich.

Beau Brummell @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

By CHARLES ROBERTS

As somebody almost said in a slightly different situation: C'est magnifique – mais ce n'est pas le théâtre.

The scene is a squalid room in Calais, within a convent Bedlam for the mildly mad. And here Beau Brummell, once fashion's master at Bath and in the Prince Regent's rotten and sensualist court, is tying with style his last lace stock, possibly for the last time. Exiled and in poverty, his time is running out.

This is a new play by Ron Hutchinson, given its premiere just three weeks ago.

He tells a compelling story, with much wit and numerous excellent one-liners. Meticulously based on fact, it is enriched by imaginative writing which conjures a past age yet speaks to us in the language of now.

Equally, it catches superbly the poignancy of a man whose former life is now reduced to humiliation and obscurity, from which he is protected only by a patrician descent into madness.

But having said all that, there is a problem. Fascinating as the story is, sensitive the direction and sound the acting (let's overlook the dismal set), from this reviewer's standpoint it is just not theatre.

Rather it would make a powerfully atmospheric play for radio, in which insinuating music and off-stage sounds would conjure up far more than we see on the stage. If a stage play it insists on being, then it is assuredly a chamber play for an intimate setting.

Peter Bowles as Brummell presents a carefully observed portrayal which shows us clearly the Beau who was – and reveals the internal anguish of the Brummel that is. Yet most of the effect is vocal rather than visual – save for a memorable interlude when Brummell takes off, with ritual observance and in total silence, his last remaining suit of clothes in which he had hoped to meet, and be forgiven by, the Prince Regent.

Understudy Richard Latham took over last night from Richard McCabe as Austin, Brummell's valet, and handsomely earned his final curtain applause, endearingly reflecting a working peasant whose enquiring mind would have blossomed with the boon of education.


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