The Dressing Book (2012)

The Dressing Book

Our first indoor play for an adult audience is a comedy in our contemporary commedia dell’arte style, using material we have garnered with the help of The V&A, but more tender, gentler and ‘smaller’ than our summer shows, with three actors and five half-human-size puppets, and more suited to intimate studio settings. The play first toured village halls and small theatre venues during the autumn of 2012.

It follows the social round of Mrs Maybelline Erstwhile who records which dresses she wears for each event in her ‘dressing book’ – and the men she encounters while wearing them – and the disastrous Annual Pantiles Ball in Tunbridge Wells when someone else turns up in the very same gown! It becomes both a search for love in a ‘conventional’ marriage and for freedom from the domestic round imposed on her by social convention – and her cold and unloving husband – symbolised by the dresses she wears. The play begins in the late 18thC, but plays games with time and social status.

The story

Mrs Erstwhile, Maybelline to her intimates, has a dilemma. The wife, now widow, of Sir John Rump MP, known to virtually no intimates (because she had none) as Augusta, was bounding up the path in her durable bombazine widow’s weeds (with a hint of sunlight), quite visibly without a calling card!

The Dressing Book

There had been a tiff! Indeed a spat concerning a gown, examples of which both women had worn to The Pantiles Annual Ball which always began the Tunbridge Wells season – a dandelion and saffron robe à la française with sleeves finished in a ruffle of dimity and fine English net lace. Allegedly bespoke by Greenfield and Tuck, no less, of Oxford Street! Bespoke indeed!

Mrs Rump was furious! – Who wouldn’t be? – And would have made the point that very night but for the fact that Sir John had been shot through the heart in a duel with his mistress’s husband. Quite snookered in fact! Distracted by the obsequies her rage had been bottled up, but now ‘dear Jack’ was safely in the ground she was about to explode like Vesuvius itself at Maybelline’s very door.

But the latter would not give up her claim to the gown lightly because that night she had met Edward, Mr Ashby, that is, a doctor from Sevenoaks, and the trace of his presence still lingered on its sleeve where he had daringly touched her arm. She had carefully recorded the facts in her dressing book, where she chronicled in her tiny elegant hand all her encounters – and the gowns that she had worn. The impossible possibilities. The pathways always not quite crossing. Thwarted by social obligation, or time, or geography.