Back in the Dark Ages when I was working as a playscout (scouting for new plays for possible production in Germany) I spent a good deal of my time talking to writers’ agents, and it seemed every other playwright was represented by Peggy Ramsay. I didn’t deal directly with her, thank goodness (foreign rights were handled by her assistant Tom Erhardt) – I was only too aware of her reputation and I was very easily intimidated.
According to reputation she was bombastic, domineering, opinionated and highly idiosyncratic. She also had an unerring ability to spot a good play and she would do absolutely anything for a writer she considered talented, whether he or she – it was almost invariably he – was a newcomer or an old hand. She was less interested in money than in the work itself and she loved people such as Joe Orton, whom she championed despite – or maybe partly because of – his oddball personality.
Not all of these qualities are obvious in Alan Plater’s play Peggy For You, which is being revived at Hampstead Theatre with Tamsin Greig as Peggy. This ‘day-in-the-life’ features a fledgling playwright whose first play Peggy dismisses with a comment that it has two good scenes and an awful title – not exactly illuminating – a successful client who to her surprise and disapproval is about to get married, and an angry and jaundiced older Geordie playwright called Henry who is struggling to support his family.
For me the play comes alive in the second act, when the wonderfully-written – and performed, by Trevor Fox – Henry (not Alan Plater himself, surely?) gives his agent a piece of his mind and threatens to leave, especially when she tells him off for being a happily married man who is ‘less interesting’ now than he was when she first took him on. He is unimpressed by her bombast and what he perceives to be her lack of attention to detail.
I could see his point. The problem was what I couldn’t see were Peggy’s unique abilities, her extraordinary insights into writing and writers, the reason why she attracted all these top-notch writers to her in the first place. Some of this may have been to do with Tamsin Greig’s slightly low-key performance. But anyone who didn’t know anything of Ms Ramsay beforehand might well have wondered what it was about her that set her apart from everyone else in her field.
It’s an entertaining evening, no doubt about it, but to me a less than penetrating study of a legendary woman.
Peggy For You runs until 29 January 2022. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2021/peggy-for-you/