Beatrix Potter tells her own tale

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Patrick Garland and Judy Taylor set themselves a testing exercise in seeking to fashion a two-act summation of the character of Beatrix Potter "in the round". Drawing solely upon documents - letters, journals, reminiscences and the like - they have created a dramatic collage.

Mrs B Heelis (nee Potter), sheep-farmer and landowner, is seen looking back over her past life, recalling almost at random her strangely varied experiences, from research into fungi to subdued guerilla warfare against Parent Power. External comment, or the sharpening of dramatic moments beyond the sanction of the documents does not occur (apart from the use of slides on a back-of-stage screen). Impact on the audience is thus heavily dependent on the way in which a pattern emerges from the randomness.

That such a pattern does emerge, and that it holds our attention, is mainly due to the intensity of Patricia Routledge's solo performance. Much of the material is low-key rumination, with occasional acid asides, and its appreciation requires some previous awareness of why Mrs Heelis should be celebrated in this fashion.

The demands on the actress's craft are formidable: pacing and controlling over two hours the delivery of Beatrix Potter's admirable prose, and finding occasion for movement and significant gesture. The end result is a valuable corrective to the soppy, sweet-faced image promoted by the television companies, but Miss Routledge may well wish that even more of her alter ego's curmudgeonly traits had been introduced to help keep the drama going.

The high point of this "dramatic collage" comes at the end of the first act, when Beatrix Potter mourns the sudden death of her fiance, the publisher Norman Warne. The text for this restrained lament is taken from a diary which she kept in August 1905, while on holiday with her parents at Llanbedr on the west coast of Wales.

The diary only came to light in 1994, when it was auctioned at Sotheby's and purchased - with great gallantry - by the Beatrix Potter Society for Pounds 10,000. The 44 pages of the diary are now reproduced in the Society's own publication, along with a full transcript and illustrations (many being either watercolours by Beatrix Potter or photographs taken by her father) and with a substantial commentary by Judy Taylor on the diary itself, and on Norman Warne and his family.

Carried through with taste, discretion, and elegance, Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary is given a setting that does full justice to the quietly tragic story that it has to tell.

Beatrix is at Chichester till September 14, and then at Malvern (Sept 23-29), Plymouth (Sept 30-Oct 6), Guildford (Oct 7-20), Richmond, Surrey (Oct 21-27) and Bath (Nov 4-10); Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary, edited by Judy Taylor, from the Beatrix Potter Society, co 9 Broadfields, Harpenden, Herts AL5 2HJ, Pounds 5.50.

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