Playhouse, Nottingham, Thursday 13th October, 2011
Often described as a “comedy of manners” Noel Coward’s 1930 play resonates differently these days, I wager. The plot concerns the coincidental encounter of a divorced couple – they happen to have booked adjacent hotel suites for their honeymoons with new spouses. It soon becomes clear their first marriage was a volatile and passionate experience and that there is unfinished business and continuation of feeling still between them.
So, they abandon their new partners on their wedding night and bugger off to a bijou flat in Paris. So far, so charming. The dialogue is witty, snappy even, and peppered with “dahlings” and “teddibly, teddibly soddy” and leading man Rupert Wyckham’s performance has more than a hint of Noel Coward about it (and sometimes a touch of Simon Callow – it’s not an entirely consistent delivery).
In the flat, the reunited couple establish a safe word to call a halt when proceedings are getting out of hand, but even this isn’t enough to stop violence from breaking out. The violence is dealt with a comic touch – a gramophone record is smashed over his head, they tip each other over the backs of sofas, and so on – but in this day and age, awareness of domestic violence, alcohol-related abuse, and mutually abusive relationships brings the darker edge of the drama to the fore.
The subsequent coffee klatch when the abandoned partners turn up in Paris is therefore more starkly contrasted: we have seen the violence beneath the urbanity and civility. Elyot and Amanda are koi carp and shouldn’t get tanked up together, but they are unable to survive apart. The play ends with their new spouses getting into a right old ding-dong with each other – their passion, previously unseen and presumed missing, has been ignited at last. Elyot and Amanda tiptoe from the room, leaving their new exes to each other and their new-found love-hate relationship.
As fiery Amanda, Janie Dee achieves a balance between assertiveness and vulnerability, ably contrasted with Victoria Yeates’s Sibyl, who uses her toothy grin to charming and ditzy effect. The men aren’t quite as strong – Coward’s dialogue seems a little too stilted in their mouths. Director Giles Croft keeps the pace moving – the moments of silence after the safe word has been uttered are especially well done.
The play is a vote for passion and all its destructive qualities. Knowing what we do of the private life of Coward, this was very brave.