(Patricia) Ann Jellicoe

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Irving Wardle

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Ann Jellicoe's new play [The Giveaway] is a farce about a family who win a ten years' supply of cornflakes as a competition prize and there are two ways of looking at it: either as the calculated attempt of an experimental writer to turn out a commercially profitable piece: or as an honest and logical effort to extend her work into popular territory.

I have no hesitation in taking the second view. Miss Jellicoe, whatever her critical reputation, has never sought out the avant-garde public. Her interest, among other things, is in the traditional broad theatrical categories, and when she is on top of her form (as in The Knack and The Rising Generation) there is no one like her for flooding the place with joy. Unfortunately there remains the well known split between intention and range of talent; and while The Giveaway shows her still in command of the comic techniques with which she made her name, it does not show much aptitude for conventional farce.

There seems no doubt that this is what she meant to write. Her characters, who inhabit three adjoining houses, have been assembled strictly with a view to farcical development. The prizewinning Mum … is simply a compulsive tea-drinker and an inexhaustible source of middle-aged female inconsistency. Jim, her honest mechanic son …, dotes on the dumb-blonde lodger, who favours sharp-suited Cyril next door: while on the other side dwells the scatty Daisy Wink …, who pines for Jim. There are also the eight huge mobile crates in which the cornflakes arrive; and to begin with it seems that these are to be the real actors in the comedy.

However, no such development ensues. Perhaps Miss Jellicoe imagined what Ionesco would have done with them, shuddered, and decided that crates should know their place. So although the cast play hide and seek round them, play rhythms on them, and address them as domestic pets, they take on no theatrical life of their own. Nor does Miss Jellicoe intend any social comment on the free-gift business and its clients. The crates and the characters are there simply for laughs; and not many people laughed last night.

One reason for this lies in the characterization. It may be true that farcical character cannot accommodate any complexity. But simplicity is not the same thing as simple-mindedness; and Miss Jellicoe's people are so dim that, far from permitting rapid action, they slow it down to a crawl in which everything has to be explained to them in one-syllable words. Together with this, there goes a deficient instinct for how long suspense can be sustained. Not only do you see the next development coming; by the time it arrives you have lost interest.

What pleasure the piece offers comes from Miss Jellicoe's old games with nonsense language and physical rhythm; and from one passage where Daisy (attired as a schoolboy) bursts right out of character for a series of crazy parodies of television commercials.

Irving Wardle, "Effort to Extend Scope," in The London Times, April 9, 1969, p. 6.

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Irving Wardle


John Simon