Love and Miss Harris by Peter Maughan – the Company of Fools theatre group takes to the road

Love and Miss Harris by Peter Maughan 

A bus, a Rolls Royce and a huge heap of playbills go ahead of a troupe of actors as they travel across the south of post war England in this lively tale of people and a play. Peter Maughan has constructed a “Company of Fools” in the first of a series of books with great promise. This book features the memorable Titus Llewellyn-Gwynne as he tries to put a play on, the splendidly named “Love and Miss Harris”, aided and abetted by a cast including Jack, a war veteran who has a talent for trouble. This is a terrific ensemble piece set in a world of seedy boarding houses, damaged theatres and dodgy deals, of faded stars and last hopes. There is a threat of more than poor audiences running through the book, as a self appointed gangster has taken offence at Jack and is using all his resources to track him down with his incompetent employees. This lively tale of fantastic characters all pulling together to ensure that the show must go on is a really entertaining and engaging novel, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book begins with Titus, as usual dressed in a selection of theatrical wardrobe clothes including a useful sword stick, discovers that Reuben ‘Books’ Kramer’s potential backing for a new show is not forthcoming. Jack Savage, actor with bad memories of hand to hand fighting in France, usefully thumps Reuben and thereby starts his vendetta. While Titus is grateful, the removal of the funding leaves his dreams, and that of his associate Dolly without any hope of putting on a play. Out of a London fog appears George, otherwise known as Lady Devonaire, whose life’s ambition is to put on the play she has written, “Love and Miss Harris” with enough money to invest. She is disappointed to hear that Titus’ theatre where he lives is not in a state to put on a play. However, he has an idea, with a small cast and a minimum of production staff they could tour the small towns of the south of England. Jack Savage is cast as one of the male leads, along with a young actress called Lizzie. An ex-film star who has retired owing to an alcohol problem is also recruited to give a real star quality, and George insists on joining the party with her large dog Gus. Her aristocratic friend provides some support, and the group leaves London in George’s Rolls Royce and a repurposed double decker bus. Playing in small places with crooked managers and variable accommodation, it is quite an adventure, especially with Jack’s wandering eye and undoubted attractions. Meanwhile in London Reuben is searching for Jack, while a Chinese issue is also brewing.

There are some lovely period details in this book, as British towns and people recover from the effects of the War, as well as the theatrical problems that afflict the running of the play as it meets with success and challenges. Events in London centring around Reuben’s desire for revenge become increasingly surreal, and involve a young woman who has cause to reconsider her options. I really enjoyed this book with its fascinating characters and carefully described settings, its postwar atmosphere and gentle humour. It is using some established situations to set this book firmly in its era, and it is always lively and well paced. I recommend this book as a jolly read and a great start  to a new series.