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Dame Penelope is a late bloomer

TIM WALKER gives The Chalk Garden at the Chichester Festival Theatre four stars

The Chalk Garden

Chichester, until June 16

**** (Four stars)

When Penelope Keith was awarded a DBE, she was quick to point out that the honour was for her charitable work, rather than her acting.

The star of To the Manor Born and The Good Life considered it presumptuous to invite comparisons with fellow dames such as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins.

Watching her in The Chalk Garden at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it struck me she’s been much too self-deprecating. Miss Keith has matured as an actress into something rather special, and, at 78, possesses a stage presence that bears comparison to each of her three illustrious elders.

She plays an imperious widow named Mrs St Maugham, who is looking after her wayward granddaughter – played by Emma Curtis – in a chaotic old house in rural Sussex in the 1950s. In the wrong hands, the part can all too easily become Lady Bracknell, but without the laughs. Miss Keith, however, communicates the vulnerability at the heart of her character to great effect.

Enid Bagnold’s play is ultimately more of a tragedy than a drawing room comedy and the chaotic garden room that the designer Simon Higlett has created for the characters to inhabit stresses the underlying madness of their lives. The title is a nod to the fact that – like the rhododendrons Mrs St Maugham has ill-advisedly planted in her chalky soil – they’re all struggling to survive.

Amanda Root is suitably mysterious as the governess she employs to help her bring up her granddaughter and there is a scene-stealing turn from Oliver Ford Davies as a judge she has befriended, who happens to know all about her governess’s unlikely past.

The director Alan Strachan directs with great flair and he has managed to make it seem a lot more than the sum of its parts. The greatest of its parts is indubitably Dame Penelope: she is, so far as I’m concerned, now a fully paid-up theatrical dame.

Meanwhile, with no column last week, I had a chance to visit, too, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It’s kicked off its season this year with an enchanting production of Peter Pan directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel and starring Sam Angell in the title role.

There is enough in it to keep the kids amused – there’s an amusing panto turn from Dennis Herdman as Capt Hook and Peter gets impressively airborne soon enough – but, for the adults, it offers a great deal, too. It ruminates poignantly on what became of J M Barrie’s ‘lost boys’ in the First World War.

It is rare one can say this with any conviction, but this really is great entertainment for all the family. It runs until June 15.

I wish I could say the same for Tartuffe, which the Theatre Royal Haymarket is saddled with until July 28. Gerald Garutti’s production is a bewildering mess, with the adaptor Christopher Hampton dithering about whether Molière’s classic should be performed in French or English. He decides to do it in both, which means five screens translating the English into French and the French into English.

Alas, the whole thing feels like a rather laborious Linguaphone course.