Review: Swimming at the Ritz

THIS year's New Play Festival continued its imaginative two-week programme with 'Swimming At The Ritz' at the Devonshire Park Theatre, supported by Arts Council England.

'Underfoot In Show Business', by New York playwritght Charles Leipart, is a dramatization of the life and loves of Pamela Churchill Harriman.

Born to a well-heeled English family, she devoted seven decades to improving her social position, usually by sleeping with, or marrying, some of the world's richest and most powerful men.

These included Randolf Churchill, she was young Winston's mother; Averell Harriman, wartime American diplomat and multi millionaire; and Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune.

Leaving Europe for the USA, she became mistress of legendary showbiz impresario Leland Hayward, whom she later married, before meeting up again with Harriman and inheriting his $115 million fortune.

Rewarded for providing financial support to Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign, she was appointed American Ambassador to France in Paris.

It is here, incarcerated in the Ritz Hotel, being sued for millions and waiting for Christies to value her enormous collection of objets d'art, that the action takes place.

Directed with a deft touch by Roland Jaquarello, on a sparsely furnished set suggesting fading opulence, the millionairess, played by Felicity Dean, assisted by her young Italian valet, Pietro (Jos Vandtyler), holds court.

Noted for her gorgeously-coiffeured red hair, milky white skin and curvaceous figure, exquisitely dressed and dripping jewellery, Dean, a dead ringer for Harriman, gives a toweringly believable performance.

The ambassador died in 1997 while taking her daily swim in the hotel pool.

Her re-incarnation in the play's closing moments, dressed in white towelling robe surrounded by dry ice, rather than enhancing the story unfortunately breaks the spell which until then, in a manner similar to those doubtlessly cast by Pamela over her many lovers, had mesmerized the audience.