THAT most varied of playwrights Peter Shaffer wrote the double bill The Private Ear and The Public Eye back in 1962, the fledgling days of the Swinging Sixties, and it provided a vehicle for the actress who was to become the Dowager Countess of Grantham to exhibit her comic versatility.
Now on its first major revival, this pairing is in Bath this week, this time providing not just a dual role for the woman, but for one of the men.
The first play, set in a bedsitter, introduces the timid Bob planning his first date with Doreen, with the dubious help of his workmate, the flashy and worldly-wise Ted.
In the second play middle aged accountant Charles, in his London office on a Saturday morning, is confronted by the private detective who has taken over the investigation into his wife’s suspected infidelity.
When these plays were first produced at the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) in London they were cutting edge comments on the changing social and sexual manners of the 60s. Now they could very well be period pieces, and in Hayley Grindle’s sets and costumes with hit songs from the Swinging Blue Jeans in the background they might stay there.
But Alastair Whatley’s production skewers those timeless truths that inhabit Peter Shaffer’s works, and both plays are filled with poignancy and fear.
Apart from the wonderful performances by Steven Blakeley as Bob and Julian, and the excellent support by Siobhan O’Kelly as the two women, Rupert Hill as the preening Ted and Jasper Britton as the pompous Charles, it is the links between Bob and Charles as they blunder through their expectations of life in a rapidly-changing society that stay in the memory.
Both are doomed by their expectations of a better life with the right woman, only they express it differently. Bob wants his own Botticelli Venus, Charles wants all his potential to be unleashed by the love of his (much younger) wife. Both want to feel they have created the woman in their own likeness. It’s awfully sad.
But also brilliantly funny, and beautifully observed in this touring production, on at Bath until Saturday 21st September, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.