After last year’s successful revival of Lloyd George Knew My Father, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre are now staging another William Douglas Home revival: The Reluctant Debutante. Starring Jane Asher and Belinda Lang, the production provides a terrific sense of a play which would have been really enjoyable sixty years ago, but has long since lost its bite.
Watching The Reluctant Debutante, we’re taken back to the theatre of the mid-fifties. Kenneth Tynan is fulminating in the press against the mainstream country-house “Loamshire” play and the continuing censorship imposed by the “royal smuthound”. John Osbourne and Samuel Beckett are about to change the face of British drama forever, as “Look Back in Anger” and “Waiting For Godot” loom on the horizon of the London stage. (Some changes will come more quickly than others, however: the cast of Hair have been born, but they’ve only recently started junior school.) And William Douglas Home is writing witty comedies with an unexpected bite in them. The Reluctant Debutante looks like a society comedy, but the London season and the “coming out” into society of eligible young women is a custom about to become extinct. The heroine of the title is unimpressed by the whole charade, preferring the honest passion she imagines in the “love dances” of primitive tribes to the refined system of London courtship. Even her father, footing the bill for the round of balls and drinks parties, compares the process to an elegant sort of pimping. So when a mix-up on the telephone means that her mother invites a notorious bounder round to dinner instead of the suitable duffer she intended, a comedy of misalliance is all ready to begin.
Unfortunately, this no longer works. At this range, a modern audience can’t really tell what of the social minutiae is a hangover from an earlier period of elaborate social seasons and what it is the intrusion of fifties’ modernity, so much of the subtlety is lost in a general effect of funny olden-time society people. The cast are left trying to do broad Wodehouse-type comedy with a script which is intended to be much more nuanced, with the result that Belinda Lang has to carry whole sequences of dialogue by doing a hilarious but monotone Julie Walters impression. She’s very funny, but it’s a pure comic turn: we can’t tell for most of it what we’re actually supposed to find ridiculous. Likewise the suggestion that a young man (and even a young woman) might have had some sexual experience before marriage is no longer thrilling, or even interesting, so the tension of the central plot is reduced to wondering how it will all work out in the end. The two most satirical sequences – when the father denounces the hypocrisy of dangling their daughter invitingly front of young men and then being appalled when one takes the “bait”, and when the debutante herself quizzes him about the first woman he made love to – are disarmed because these are topics which public opinion has long since generally decided are non-issues. Whereas Lloyd George Knew My Father still has curious resonances for a society undecided what it feels about old age, “progress” and sending young men to war, The Reluctant Deubtante is tittering and winking to the converted. And in the end, it turns out his reputation is undeserved, he’s entirely innocent and so’s she, and they can marry happily anyway, so it doesn’t matter. That far-off bellowing you hear is Ken Tynan calling down curses on the cowardice of the English theatre. Either that, or one of the Hair cast has fallen off a rocking-horse.
Belinda Lang’s neatly directed production has several high points, including Clive Francis’ stylish performance as the weary paterfamilias and her own turn as the gossipy mother of one of the debutante’s rivals. But this must have been a much better play back then; now it’s just a slightly creaky script with a few laughs.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, February 2011