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The Coming of Gowf, Old Red Lion Theatre, London
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The Independent, 28 August 2001

The Coming of Gowf, Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Charming tales of hearts and clubs

Rhoda Koenig

Far from Edinburgh's celebration of rape, incest and drug addiction, the Old Red Lion has mounted a tribute to one of Scotland's greatest gifts to the world. Ken McClymont, artistic director of the theatre, has adapted and directed several of PG Wodehouse's golf stories – tales that concern not only the sport itself but the way it helps or handicaps players of the game of romance.

The title piece explains the origin of golf – or gowf, as it was called in the ancient world. A king, democratically garbed, like his subjects, in lining-material, notices a stooped, hooded figure performing a strange rite with a ball and stick. This chap, a slave brought back from a northern rape-and-pillage run, soon becomes the king's master when the monarch is converted to this new religion and its stern, weird cries of: "Keep yer ee on the ba!"

The other stories are set in that innocent post-First World War era when a kiss meant that a couple were engaged, and a confirmed bachelor was just that. Unwillingly one of the latter, the timid Ramsden Waters has no luck with the ladies until he is paired in a mixed-doubles match with the snooty Eunice Bray. Ramsden has proposed to her the night before, receiving only a yawn in reply, but golf levels the playing-field.

As another player observes, the game tames the natural urge of females to dominate the weaker sex; it "humbles their haughty natures". A mouse off the green, Ramsden becomes a tiger on it, revealing to Eunice that he is just what she has been looking for all along: "a great strong rough brute of a fellow who will tell me not to move my head".

Putting Wodehouse on stage or screen is tricky, since he created not just stories and characters but his own world; its atmosphere dissipates with the loss of the narrative voice, and the dialogue, spoken aloud, tends to sound arch and awkward.

Those hazards haven't been skirted in most of the stories or by most members of an energetic, 10-strong cast. But the title tale, with Ian Barnes as a majestically goofy king, retains its charm, as does the story of Mortimer and Mabel.

"May I call you Mary?" Mortimer breathlessly asks the girl he knows only as "Miss Somerset", and she, equally besotted, says of course, if that makes him happy. Mortimer, however, not unreasonably takes her consent to mean that she is Mary Somerset, the champion golfer. This touching tale of love thwarted and betrayed is splendidly enacted by Simon Wilkinson and Olivia Busby, who are much the best at conveying the dizzy sweetness of the period.

McClymont shouldn't let his players get away with American accents that sound inept rather than parodic, but he has dealt well with the problem of presenting a golf play in a pocket-sized theatre. An evening of chip shots and even drives passes harmlessly, even for a critic sitting in the front row.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.