Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:
By all accounts, Clemence Dane was a fascinating person. Born Winifred Ashton in 1888, she gained her greatest fame after assuming a pseudonym based on the church of St Clement Danes on the Strand. An actor, artist, novelist and playwright, after moving into screenplay writing she won an Oscar, and Alfred Hitchcock adapted one of her detective novels into his 1930 film Murder!.
Dane’s friendship with a similar polymath, the rather more well known Noël Coward, forms the basis for writer/performer Rose Collis’s monologue in character as Dane. Taking her cue from Dane being the inspiration for the psychic medium Madame Arcati in Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Collis’s one-act piece begins in pitch blackness, with Collis as Dane as Arcati asking: “Is there anybody there?”
And then the lights come up, the play proper starts, and you begin to wish the answer was “no”. Collis presents her monologue as if reciting a letter written by Dane to Coward, while finishing her portrait of her friend. And yet despite the pair’s friendship, Collis has Dane recounting the minutiae of her life that her friend would already know, or talking about Hollywood as if to someone who knew nothing of such things – which Coward most decidedly did.
Each anecdote is delivered as a bland tale, Collis’s delivery betraying a belief in the humour and interest in her script that is as commendable as it is misplaced. All too often, the only indication that a story has concluded is that its final sentence is delivered with a little more emphasis and a pause afterwards, during which one realises that it was supposed to have been a punch line.
The number of famous names that get dropped by Collis’s version of Dane – along with Coward and Hitchcock, we hear of Radclyffe Hall, Walt Disney, Vita Sackville-West, David Niven, Joyce Grenfell, Greta Garbo and more – offer hints of a life that deserves to be as well-known as those it traversed. Yet as a true eccentric whose own use of language could be quite entertaining – her naiveté when it came to matters of the flesh would often lead her to utter unintentional double entendres – Clemence Dane is done a disservice by Collis’s lifeless, humourless script and a declamatory style that matches. To have existed in the shadow of Coward’s genius, within his inner circle of friends, the real Dane must have been fascinating company: this onstage recreation is anything but.