BBC Radio 4, 7 June 2011
Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) was a national treasure who carved out
a very successful film career for herself playing slightly dotty old ladies such as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
(1945), Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (1953), and Miss Marple in a series of MGM films in the early
1960s. She costarred in Trouble in Store (1953) with Norman Wisdom and ten years later had a cameo role in Anthony
Asquith's The VIPs. She also enjoyed a successful stage career; one of her best roles was that of Lady Wishfort in
The Way of the World (1953).
In Andy Merriman's play the role of Rutherford was played by another national treasure
- June Whitfield, whose long career spans Take if From Here (regularly repeated on Radio 4 Extra) to Last
of the Summer Wine. Whitfield gave a remarkable impersonation, enunciating her vowels in just the same kind of precise
manner associated with Rutherford.
The story was a straightforward one: at the height of her celebrity Rutherford fell
in love with a pianist, Malcolm (Ryan McCluskey) nearly thirty years her junior. While Malcolm was very fond of her,
he could not reciprocate her love, which left Rutherford bereft. Her husband Stringer Davis (Sean Baker) told Malcolm that
this was a common occurrence: Rutherford was something of a fantasist, who inhabited dream-worlds of her own making, and regularly
needed shots from the doctore to bring her back once more into the real world. Her love for Malcolm was yet another fantasy;
Stringer told him to quit Rutherford's company as quickly as possible, so as to expedite the actress' process of recovery.
Andy Merriman's play suggested that Rutherford's life was one long fantasy; she willingly
accepted the company of Prince Juan (Adeel Aktar), ostensibly a member of the Jordanian Royal Family but in truth a stallholder
from the Portobello Road. She enjoyed playing her roles; not only because they helped her overcome depression, but because
she could inhabit them: Stringer pointed out that she only really came alive on stage or in front of the movie camera. The
only way to help her was to indulge her, while gently bringing her back down to earth, should her fantasies get out of hand.
Nimbly directed by David Hunter, A Monstrous Vitality brought back fond
memories of one well-loved actress, in a convincing central characterization by another well-loved performer.