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Posts Tagged ‘Noel Coward’

Though Noel Coward wrote around forty plays, this is one of only a handful that are regularly produced today. This production originated in Bath and after a short tour is heading to the West End, which the last production left only five years ago. That was a star vehicle for the return to London of Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. Now its Jenifer Saunders’ turn.

Writer Charles Condomine decides to hold a seance at his home as part of the research for his next book. He invites local medium Madame Arcati to conduct it, and friends Dr and Mrs Bradman as guests to join him and his second wife Ruth. On the night, the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira appears. Only Charles can see and hear her, but others can sense her. She hangs around and becomes a disruptive force in the household. When tragedy strikes, we acquire another ghost and disruption becomes war.

It’s an enjoyable concoction, well staged by Richard Eyre, and well performed, not just by the highly impressive Saunders, but by six other fine actors led by Geoffrey Streatfield – even Anthony Ward’s excellent set gets to perform – but it left me a bit cold. Perhaps this was because it came a couple of days after more substantial fare like Albion and Death of England, though I can’t help comparing it with the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, where they breathed new life into the piece. This seemed dated, somewhat conservative and perhaps overly reverential.

It’s a Coward play I hadn’t seen before and for this reason, plus Saunders in fine comic form, it was worth the visit, at suburban rather than West End prices!

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A lot of characters in plays have changed gender of late, in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC’s current Taming of the Shrew and Sondheim’s Company, where it breathed new life into the show. Now the gender of two of Noel Coward’s characters have been changed to produce something extraordinarily fresh, which would never have seen the light of day when it was first staged during the Second World War, but in my view is the play Coward may well have written today.

Actor Garry Essendine is surrounded by his staff – secretary Monica, valet Fred and Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson – and a coterie of producers – Morris, estranged wife Liz, Helen and her husband Joe – and then two ‘super-fans’, Daphne and Roland, crash into his life. He both loves the attention and adulation and feels suffocated by it. As he prepares to tour six plays to Africa, Monica and Liz try to keep him in control whilst Helen and Morris go against his wishes for his next project, Daphne and Roland’s obsession gets out of control and his promiscuity runs rampant. Coward’s dialogue crackles and sparkles right up to a surprisingly poignant ending. The issues around fame seem bang up-to-date.

Matthew Warchus’ production makes it feels like a newly minted piece, set in Rob Howell’s brilliantly designed art deco apartment that is thrust forward to bring more intimacy in this big theatre, with as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. Essendine is a larger-than-life character who gets a stunning larger-than-life, finely detailed characterisation from Andrew Scott, with a hitherto unseen (by me) flair for comedy. The role of Monica suits Sophie Thompson’s style of acting and here she milks it for every ounce of comedy. Indira Varma’s Liz is the perfect foil to Scott’s Essendine, with their final moments together movingly underlining the play’s original title Sweet Sorrow. Liza Sadovy does some nifty doubling-up as Miss Erikson and Daphne’s Great Aunt Lady Saltburn and Joshua Hill as Fred delivers some great lines so well he makes them even greater.

Above all, it’s very funny and hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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This is what Emma Rice does best – creating theatrical magic. It’s her 4th such show in the last 2 years – Romantics Anonymous, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and this revival of her 2007 masterpiece, four of the best of her seventeen shows I’ve seen. It’s back in the same cinema, just down the road from the location of the film’s world premiere in Regent Street seventy-two years ago.

It interweaves the film’s story of the relationship between Laura and Alec with playful scenes involving the other characters at the station – Asst. Station Master Albert and Refreshment Room Manager Myrtle and her assistants Beryl and Stanley, two other rather less serious couplings. It takes us from the moment Alec removes grit from Laura’s eye in the refreshment room at Milford Junction station, through their regular meetings at the station, in the cinema, the cafe & restaurant and in the flat of Alec’s colleague Stephen, to the crunch will-they-won’t-they denouement back at the station.

It flows beautifully from scene to scene, location to location, using film footage, songs with lyrics by Noel Coward and music by Coward and Stu Barker, and every trick in the inventive staging book. The cleverest thing about it is that the fun scenes don’t contaminate the love story, helped by the fact Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec play it straight throughout. Lucy Thackeray’s Myrtle, Dean Nolan’s Albert, Beverley Rudd’s Beryl and Jos Slovick’s Stanley are all an absolute joy to behold, and if that isn’t enough they play another seven roles between them.

It’s a respectful homage to the film, which doesn’t for one moment send it up. The fun scenes add bucket-loads of charm and humour, and the two interwoven parts add up to one hell of an entertaining show. Though its hard to remember how you felt ten years ago, first time around, if anything I felt it was even better this time. Whatever you think of her two years at Shakespeare’s Globe, we’ve got Emma Rice back to create theatrical magic like this. I for one can’t wait for her next show.

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Quite a few years ago GSMD introduced me to a Noel Coward play called Peace in Our Time, set in an occupied London at the end of the Second World War; the Nazis had won. Now they are introducing me to another rare Coward, an anti-war play set during and after the First World War. It’s a fascinating piece and it’s given a stunning production.

Coward wrote it in 1930, after being deeply affected by performing in R C Sheriff’s Journey’s End, another First World War play. He published it but decided it was too bitter to stage. It’s first performance took place in a PoW camp in Austria in 1944, where the prisoners included four professional actors. It was first seen here in 1968, on TV, and not until 1992 on stage, when it had its first production at the Kings Head Theatre. That was 25 years ago and its baffling that no-one has staged it since. Coward is known for comedy and songs, so in a blind test you probably wouldn’t guess correctly, though the dialogue does have his voice.

We start in the trenches with five very different officers. Cavan swaps watch with Robbins and is killed. At that moment, he becomes a ghostly presence back home where thirteen years have passed. He visits his mother, his former girlfriend, his newspaper baron father (a thinly disguised snipe at the Daily Mail) and his former army colleagues. The war has made nothing better and some things worse. When his time is up, we return to the trenches as he’s stretchered away. There’s one final moving moment at a war memorial.

William Dudley’s projection tunnel is extraordinary, enabling them to move to seven very different locations in two time periods, which helps Lucy Bailey’s staging flow so beautifully. Tom Glenister is excellent as Cavan, on stage throughout, and there’s a particularly fine performance from Nicholas Armfield as tortured Lomas, who writes a book after the war which Cavan’s dad’s newspaper riles against. In fact, the whole ensemble of twenty-five is outstanding.

Well worth reviving, in a matchless production. Only three more days.

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Collecting rare plays by 20th British playwrights again, this time an oddly named Noel Coward that hasn’t been staged for 89 years (during which time, there have probably been thousands of Hay Fever’s and Private Lives’) at the Finborough Theatre. They’re really good at this here, and this is no exception.

Janet and Peter, very good friends, end up sharing a sleeper cabin through overcrowding on the train from the South of France. It crashes, though they survive unscathed, but the knowledge that they were together is interpreted by Janet’s husband Paul, mother and mother-in-law and Peter’s fiancé Mavis as adultery. Deeply offended, Janet & Peter play along and invent an affair which they keep running until other truths are revealed.   

With it’s theme of adultery, it must have been quite shocking in its time, but to a modern audience it’s much less  so, and comes over as a delightful, cheeky comedy unlike any other Coward play I’ve seen. Martin Parr’s beautiful traverse staging has so much attention to detail and sensitivity to the material and the period. I loved the Noel Coward songs between scenes, very well sung by Robert Hazie as Pallett the Butler, which fade into authentic radio versions. Rebecca Brewer’s excellent design transforms from Janet & Paul’s living room to Peter’s bedroom and back and Charlotte Espiner’s costumes are superb.

There isn’t a fault in the casting, with eight other fine performances. Janet and Peter are both feisty and cheeky, brilliantly played by Zoe Waites and Richard Dempsey. I loved the mothers, Polly Adams and Joanna David, and Claire Lawrence Moody was outstanding, particularly good at love-struck, mock shock and indignant. 

It may feel like a period piece, but I doubt it could get a better production, and I’m again thrilled to have caught up with a rarity by an important 20th century playwright. The fringe at its best. Catch it while you can.

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The Finborough has a knack of finding a rarity in search of an audience, and an audience in search of a rarity; this one sold out before it opened. It’s an oddly titled banned 1925 Noel Coward play, getting its UK professional premiere. We must have been real prudes back in 1925, as it got staged in the US, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Egypt & South America – but not here; well, until now.

You’d know it was a Coward play even if you went to see it blind. In fact, it occasionally seems like a parody of Coward. Cads & bounders, cocktails & cigarettes and everyone’s darling, darling. In the world of the upper middle class, the play revolves around Edward Churt, a portrait painter who seems to be the only one who works. The rest visit each other for drinks and gossip, have lunch, play majong and travel to foreign parts to have drinks and gossip with their friends who’ve also travelled to foreign parts.

Right at the beginning of the play Edward discovers his wife Carol’s infidelity, but he doesn’t confront her until the end of the play. In between, his friend Evelyn decides to intervene on his behalf and it’s this overlong two-hand middle act where the play is at its weakest. It’s not a great play and it’s hard to identify with or care about any of the characters, which makes it more an experience of detached theatrical history that engaging, involving drama.

Simon Kenny has designed a simple, elegant and evocative period set and the costumes are terrific. The three leads, all of whose real names could be Coward character names(!) – Jamie De Courcey, Dorothea Myer-Bennett & Robert Portal – are all very good and there’s a superb supporting performance from Georgina Rylance as ice cool Zoe. Whatever you think of the play, this is a typically high quality Finborough production.

It isn’t the slightest bit shocking to a modern audience and the suggestion of a ban today would be laughable. Porgy & Bess, which I saw the previous night and which first appeared ten years later, would have been much more shocking. In 2014, it’s a rarity for those interested in 20th century British theatre in general and Noel Coward in particular.

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Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Sutherland follow their hugely successful revival of Parade at Southwark Playhouse with something completely different, Sheriden Morley’s sophisticated entertainment telling the story of the relationship between Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, at a North West London venue that has been quiet for some time.

Morley expertly weaves together narrative, correspondence and Coward songs with extracts from the only two plays they did together (Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30) plus Blithe Spirit, which Lawrence also acted in. This actually gives you a surprisingly full account of the relationship.

Though there’s no set designer credited, they’ve created a stylish 1920’s /30’s space which is lit very well by Howard Hudson. Ben Stock is a very good Coward, playing piano live on some numbers (though this did make the recorded piano on other numbers sound rather flat) and sometime Maria, Helena Blackman, is delightful as Lawrence, delivering in all departments – acting, comedy, dance but especially song. Sutherland’s direction is faithful and respectful of the material, stylish and period perfect, subtly balancing the narrative, comedy, dance and song. 

This is the sort of show we rarely see these days and some might find it rather fusty and dated. For me, it’s a very welcome and long overdue revival of this 28-year old show that compliments other musical fare on the fringe.

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