More Style Than Substance:

Making Dickie Happy at the Tristan Bates Theatre

This high class period comedy will certainly make you chuckle from time to time… but overall, this play contains more style than substance. Making Dickie Happy appears to be more of a showcase of intellect than a piece of dramatic writing. At the Tristan Bates Theatre.


Set in the 1920s, Making Dickie Happy keeps a close eye on a collective of literary wits all randomly staying in a quiet little hotel on Burgh Island, off the south coast of Devon. According to records, Noël Coward, Dickie Mountbatten and Agatha Christie were all guests of the same establishment – and Jeremy Kingston’s play explores a possible encounter that could have occurred, during which Mountbatten pitches Christie an idea for a new detective story that will no doubt change the landscape of the genre! How very exciting! Christie isn’t particularly enthralled by the idea; in fact Mountbatten’s suggested plot is described as “treacherous to the reader” and is rejected on that basis. Ergo, Dickie is sad. Noël Coward steps in and after many fruitful interchanges… I’m still at a loss as to how it resolves.

I’m presuming Dickie was made happy because Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroidlives and breathes as a text today and mirrors the unprecedented plot twist that Mountbatten was so keen for her to explore.

It’s described as a “look at relationships, marriages, engagements, promises, hellos and goodbyes” – and yes, it explores all those things… but if you can make head or tail of some of the conversations, then you’re a better (wo)man than I. Don’t get me wrong; I got the gist. But that’s all I got – and I wasn’t engaged enough to work at it. I don’t ascribe to the notion of being “intellectually challenged”, but I couldn’t keep up with the heavy dialogue, all of which seemed to be just clever wordplay. It certainly exposes the social elite of the period, but Making Dickie Happy appears to be more of a showcase of intellect than a piece of dramatic writing.

This play’s got a bit do with making Dickie happy (especially if the Dickie in question is not a reference to a character – there’s plenty of innuendo to suggest that is the case), but overall, it’s got little do with anything. Nothing really happens. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing (nothing much happens in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and I’m not disputing that work of genius) – but Making Dickie Happy lacks depth, substance and the character interchanges are not particularly gripping, resulting in hardly any dramatic tension.

Despite being centred on one of my favourite literary heroes (Coward), I didn’t learn anything – mainly because I spent the most part of two hours translating the ever-so-expressive, poetic, intelligent vocabulary, which was sing-sung all the way through, into English. Now I know Coward was an energetic extrovert, a liberated linguist, and all round drama Queen (excuse the pun), but even the wittiest people break the surface for air every now and then; even the sharpest-tongues falter from time-to-time.

Considering the demands of the script, there are some strong performances. Helen Duff blossoms into a brilliant Agatha Christie, and James Phelips’ makes for a great buttoned-up Dickie. Rob Pomfret is excellent as the sought-after waiter, Cyril. Phineas Pett’s cracking impersonation of Noël Coward is larger than life and Pett carries the language well (quite a feat since I doubt even the most eloquent writer would speak in such a way).

Unfortunately the writing doesn’t build a good sense of character – it’s a play that relies on one-dimensional impersonation. Line after line, the writing doesn’t give the actors much chance to demonstrate any thought process, connection or spontaneity. It is perhaps too cleverly and tightly written – the intelligence behind the words dilutes the sense of real in the people it portrays.  

Saying that, there are some funny moments and witty comebacks and this high class period comedy will certainly make you chuckle from time to time… but overall, this play contains more style than substance.

Date reviewed: Thursday 7th March 2013

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