Tea at Five is a wonderfully detailed, informative and enjoyable monologue that delves into the career of the late, great Katharine Hepburn; the memorably boisterous, hard skinned actress who left her mark on golden-age Hollywood. The Old Joint Stock Theatre Company brings their successful adaptation of Hepburn’s autobiography to the stage for this year’s Fringe. The big draw is a spectacular lead performance from actress Meg Lloyd. This so easily could have ventured into parody - Hepburn did have a very distinctive voice and mannerisms - instead we are treated to a beautifully measured performance. It contains all the immediately noticeable aspects of the star but slowly unveils the humanity and emotions that bringing out a fully rounded, hugely impressive characterisation. This is an outstanding tour-de-force of a performance and one that well deserves the many accolades that Lloyd should have coming to her.
The show itself is split in two halves: we first meet a sprightly just-turned-30 Hepburn, fighting and flirting with the men around her (neatly appearing either off stage, in letters or on the other end of the phone) whilst she enthusiastically spills all to the audience. Lloyd grabs you right from the start, for a monologue it runs the gamut. Hepburn was a fast-paced talker and Lloyd certainly runs full speed ahead. She darts around the stage with one humorous, occasionally deliciously bitchy, tale of old Hollywood after another. Yet there’s a vulnerability to this young star that is cleverly hinted at.
The second half will surely elicit a few tears. As the now elderly Hepburn returns to the stage after a well structured passage of time montage, Lloyd once again completely embodies the great star. The mannerisms are perfect, as the now ill Hepburn struggles with her medication whilst recounting some sad memories of old. The sly humour is still there however, as is the sprightly quality of a woman not yet willing to call it a day. One of the most effective choices the team have made here is not adding any old-age make-up to Lloyd (with the exception of some very slight hair colouring). Lloyd captures the essence of a frail old woman in her expertly performed body movement but the youthful beauty and spark remains on her face, it is a stunningly effective choice.
The show could yet do with some trimming (the performance did run ten minutes over), and the second half certainly slows down the pace due to its content matter. There’s a niggling feeling that perhaps one too many stories or details are revealed in the latter half of the show that seem unnecessary, and the now elderly character can no longer jolt around the stage to keep your focus. Still this is a highly impressive piece of theatre and for those who are fans of the era, and especially the star, it is an absolute must-see.