By Mae Hunt
“Lettice and Lovage” is a comedic British satire with a surprising amount of emotion at its center, thanks to the quirky friendship that develops between its two leads. The Little Theatre of Alexandria play, which opened on Saturday, stars Patricia Nicklin as Lettice Douffet, a flamboyant historical tour guide with a bad habit of embellishing the truth, and Rachael Hubbard as Lotte Schoen, Douffet’s stringent superior.
“Lettice and Lovage” was written by English playwright Peter Shaffer, who crafted the role of Lettice Douffet specifically for Dame Maggie Smith. Smith originated the role of Lettice in both the play’s 1987 debut at London’s Globe Theater and its subsequent 1990 Broadway run, winning the 1990 Tony Award for Best Actress in a play. Margaret Tyzack, who originated the role of Lotte Schoen, also received a Tony for Best Featured Actress.
Those familiar with Smith’s iconic roles, such as the Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey,” will recognize the traits that make Lettice an engaging protagonist. She is an eccentric, subtly crafty older woman with a deep passion for history, but an even deeper passion for the theatrical, which often leads to her detriment. To her credit, Nicklin does not attempt any sort of Maggie Smith impression in her approach to the role of Lettice. Rather, Nicklin makes the character all her own, with an energetic performance that takes full advantage of every opportunity for the physical comedy Shaffer’s script has to offer.
The play begins with Lettice leading various tour groups through the fictional historic halls of Fustian House, embellishing her narration of past events with more and more drama each time. Her flair for theatrics is a hit among tourists but attracts the disapproval of Lotte Schoen, who works for the Preservation Trust that manages Fustian House.
Lotte calls Lettice into her office, where the two butt heads over Lettice’s choice to fill her tours with entertaining fiction rather than the dull facts of Fustian House’s unremarkable history. Lotte fires Lettice from her job as a tour guide, but later feels guilty about her decision as well as intrigued by Lettice’s unconventional approach to life. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship, which is then put to the test in the play’s third act, in which several months have passed and Lettice is revealed to have been accused of a mysterious crime.
With a total run time of two hours and 40 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission between the play’s second and third acts), “Lettice and Lovage” is probably not a play to which one would want to bring small children. Most of the show’s consists of dialogue scenes between Lettice and Lotte, in which they divulge stories from their respective pasts and bond over their distaste of a rapidly modernizing London, which is becoming increasingly unrecognizable to both characters each day.
Nicklin and Schoen play off each other with ease, and both actresses managed to successfully capture the audience’s attention with plenty of physicality and prop humor.
Shaffer himself once described “Lettice and Lovage” as a “very English piece,” and this is certainly true. The script is chock-full of references to English history and the works of Shakespeare, and the architectural history of London is extremely relevant to the play’s story and themes.
Director Juli Tarabek Blacker made the commendable decision to recruit Hilary Adams as an English dialect coach, to ensure the show’s American actors performed Shaffer’s very British script as accurately as possible. This attention to detail largely pays off and makes it much easier to immerse oneself in Lettice and Lotte’s world.
“Lettice and Lovage” is produced by sheri ratick stroud and Griffin Voltmann. The cast also includes Tegan Cohen as Miss Framer; Colin Davies as Mr. Bardolph; and Nicole Lamberson, Nicole “Nicki” Gray and James Blacker playing multiple characters. Set design is by Julie Fischer and costume design by Joan Lawrence.
Anyone who considers themselves an Anglophile is sure to enjoy “Lettice and Lovage.” Those with a more general interest in history will find something to love as well – and may even leave the theater having learned something new.
At a glance:
Where: Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, 22314
When: Through March 18
Tickets: Online at thelittletheatre.com or by calling the box office at 703-683-0496
The writer, a lifelong Alexandrian, works in the fine arts industry. She is an accomplished playwright who was the former editor-in-chief and fine arts editor of the Kenyan Collegian.