On Approval was written in 1926 by Frederick Lonsdale as a comedy of manners capturing the shifting dynamics in gender roles in a world where suffragists and the Great War had ushered in the potential for great change. Against this backdrop, Lonsdale posits a scenario with two wealthy woman – one a young pickle heiress, the other an older spoilt widow – seeking to test drive potential future spouses by taking them up to a Scottish country estate ‘on approval’ and spending a few weeks together to test their compatibility. But though the promise of a witty evening is often raised, its light-hearted nature too often feels insubstantial.
Anthony Biggs’ production polishes the play hard but never really comes up with the cut-glass sharpness needed to elevate the performances above the comic shortcomings of the writing nor the crispness of pacing that would create an irresistible forward momentum. The intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre doesn’t always help, leaving the quartet of actors frequently exposed at the lack of solid dramatic foundation and missing the gumption necessary to paper over the cracks.
The normally reliable Sara Crowe gets most of the best lines as the widowed Maria Wislake as her narcissism drives even the most patient of men – her plodding suitor Richard, played by Daniel Hill – to distraction, but not even her strengths seem well-suited here. Louise Calf as the younger woman Helen never really settles into the role and casts too much uncertainty over how her scenes are going to be played out, which in turns leaves her would-be paramour – Peter Sandys Clarke’s egotistical and haughty Duke – stranded in something of a no-man’s land yet always on the cusp of a grandstandingly big performance.
One gets the feeling that the play, or certainly this production of it, would be better suited to a larger venue where broad comic strokes would be much more appropriate and allow the company to gain the confidence needed to renovate the creaking structure of a comedy that rarely makes the case for its revival.