Tag Archives: Noel Coward

Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time.  We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time.  In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.

At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life.  Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly.  Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint.  The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).

As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi.  Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter.  Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part.  Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.

It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.

Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production.  The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move.  It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change.  Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.

The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at.  Progress isn’t always a good thing.

A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.

happy breed

Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

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Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

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Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)

 


Close Encounters of the Brief Kind

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018

 

Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation.  Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm.  The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists.  It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side.  The most elemental force in play though is Love.

Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings.  He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura.  It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable.  They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic.  The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.

Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake.  Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.

This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians.  A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know.  The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director.  There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level.  The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.

Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.

 

Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec)

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away


Public Laughs

PRIVATE LIVES

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 8th February, 2016

 

Noel Coward’s comedy comes to town in this new touring production and yet again passes the test of time.   Yes, certain words have changed, and so have some attitudes, but the play’s underlying humanity remains the key to its longevity. On the surface, it’s a conventional, drawing-room comedy, of the well-to-do, living the high life, with only romantic complications to contend with. Coward subverts the genre by having two of those characters, Elyot and Amanda, behaving despicably. Divorced from each other for five years, they are both on honeymoons with brand new spouses. But as soon as they meet, the sparks fly, rekindling their former, decidedly destructive passion. They run off together and this is when we get to see them behind closed doors. Moments of intimacy are interrupted by outbursts of violence. The couple sling barbed comments, brickbats and objets d’art at each other. They’re like Japanese fighting carp, unable to co-exist in the same space without conflict and yet needing each other in order to exist at all.

Laura Rogers is spot on as Amanda, combining cool elegance with hot-headed passion, often in the same epigram. Tom Chambers’s Elyot may not be able to match her in managing the plummy language but his physical comedy and his double-take reactions are superb. Of course, his Strictly background comes out: the couple dance a loose Charleston in their Paris flat, a lovely moment in contrast with all the verbal bombardments. Director Tom Attenborough allows Chambers to play to his strengths, giving him plenty of larger-than-life comic business.

Richard Teverson gives strong support as Amanda’s fuddy-duddy second husband, Victor, while Charlotte Ritchie’s Sybil, Elyot’s second wife, encapsulates the innocence of the era – that is until she loses her rag with the infuriating Victor in a tremendous loss of temper, enabling the show to finish on a moment of high comedy. A magnificent performance – you wouldn’t think Sybil would have it in her.

Lucy Osborne’s set hints at the glamour of the south of France, with its art deco hotel balconies and also grounds us in the cosy chic of the stylish apartment, contrasting the airy public spaces with the solid, private rooms. It is behind closed doors that we reveal who we really are.

Of course, it is Coward’s audacious script that is the star of the show. The wit effervesces like champagne while the undercurrents of the characters’ true natures bubble to the surface in shocking glimpses. Elyot and Amanda deserve each other but Coward is also showing us that behind the public façade, even the most rarefied creatures have hidden depths.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an absolute classic.

'Private Lives' Play on Tour

Strictly entre nous. Laura Rogers and Tom Chambers (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 

 

 


Behind Closed Doors

PRIVATE LIVES

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 6th May, 2015

 

Noel Coward’s comedy is like champagne, with its sparkling, effervescent wit and dry humour, and it’s easy to regard it as a light bit of froth. This comedy, though, has bite.

The Octagon Theatre Bolton brings this production to the New Vic and it’s a good fit for the space. In the round, we are the walls surrounding the private lives of the couple in question. They are Elyot (Harry Long) a louche, witty fellow who seems to speak almost entirely in adverbs (terribly, beastly, ghastly and so on) and Amanda (Fiona Hampton) spirited and lively – it is clear these two are made for each other. Except when the play begins, they are honeymooning with their respective new spouses. Coincidence books them into adjacent hotel suites and, out on the balcony, they meet again, five years after their explosive marriage ended in divorce. It is soon clear that passions still run high between them. Harry Long shifts gear from urbane commentator to man-with-heart-on-his-sleeve, showing us how swiftly Amanda pushes Elyot’s buttons. Fiona Hampton too reveals the depth beneath Amanda’s party girl façade. Director Elizabeth Newman handles their mood swings and escalating rows so that the emotional exchanges and savage remarks sound natural, even in Coward’s of-its-time and epigrammatic dialogue.

Jessica Baglow is appealing as Elyot’s sweet-natured second wife Sibyl and Niall Costigan is suitably blustering as Amanda’s second husband Victor. They track their spouses to a love-nest in Paris where passion boils over into violent outbursts and domestic violence. Clearly, Elyot and Amanda are like koi carp and shouldn’t be penned up together, but then they’re obviously made for each other.

There is an appearance by Chiraz Aich as French maid Louise, here played as a touch of naturalism in this world of heightened wit and emotion. I have seen the part portrayed as a caricature but I like this better: this Louise is the litmus paper that shows us how extreme is the behaviour of the others.

Amanda Stoodley’s design is elegant black and white for the hotel balcony scenes – the polarity of Elyot and Amanda’s mood swings! – and cosy and brown with period furniture for the scenes behind closed doors.

We may not speak the way Coward’s characters do – perhaps no one ever did – but he shows us that behind the veneer of civility and what we might call ‘banter’ today, animal passions are just below the surface. Elyot and Amanda run with theirs, thereby triggering similar depths of feeling in their abandoned spouses.

An engaging and amusing production – the fights (directed by Terry King) are kept just short of shocking. In the end, you admire the strength of the performances by this excellent ensemble rather than applauding the conduct of the characters

Here we go again!  Fiona Hampton and Harry Long as Amanda and Elyot.

Here we go again! Fiona Hampton and Harry Long as Amanda and Elyot.

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Angels Delight

FALLEN ANGELS

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 2nd September, 2013

The curtain goes up on Paul Farnsworth’s elegant set, the London flat of Julia and Fred Sterroll.  I say ‘flat’ it wouldn’t be out of place as a room in a stately home.  It’s all whites and golds and classical pillars.  At home among this luxurious decor, Julia (Jenny Seagrove) reads snippets from the paper while husband Fred (sitcom stalwart Daniel Hill) utters ripostes between mouthfuls of breakfast.  It’s all what you expect from a Noel Coward.  The dialogue fizzes like champagne.  Roy Marsden directs his cast to be as energised as possible to keep the delivery effervescent.  Also, the playwright’s umistakable turn of phrase is evident with every epigram.  The Sterrolls have appointed a new ‘treasure’, their maid and factotum Saunders (Gillian McCafferty) who turns out to be something of an insufferable know-it-all.

Trouble comes when Julia’s friend Jane (Sara Crowe) brings news that the women’s former lover, Maurice, is coming to town.  They fear their former indiscretions will come to light and at first plan to flee the city to evade exposure.  But the allure of Maurice is too strong to resist.  They decide instead to wait in for him, hoping to spice up their lives, which after ten years of marriage, have become too staid and complacent.

The second of three acts moves from Coward’s coruscating wit and turns into a hilarious display of physical comedy as Seagrove and Crowe become increasingly intoxicated, going from silliness and raucous fun to resentment, aggression and even violence.  It is an absolute treat to behold.

At long last Maurice shows up – Philip Battley, as dapper and suave and cosmopolitan as you’d expect, and helps his former flings to cover their tracks.  Their husbands are, for the most part, gulled.  It feels like the pilot episode of a situation comedy; you can imagine the women getting up to all sorts of fun with the Frenchman, and the husbands being fobbed off with all kinds of far-fetched explanations.

The show is a froth, a confection, with perhaps some kind of admonition to married couples not to let things becomes stale.  The husbands, Daniel Hill and Robin Sebastian, are appropriately stuffy and stuck-up.  Philip Battley is instantly charming.  Gillian McCafferty is superb as the clever-clogs maid.  But the piece belongs to the two main players.  It is absolutely delightful to see mature actresses having the run of the stage, flexing their comedic muscles, verbally and physically.  Seagrove and Crowe are the carbonation in this overflowing bottle of bubbly.

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Friends and Lavas

VOLCANO
Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 7th August, 2012

This little-known Noel Coward piece was stashed away for decades because of its basis in real-life marital infidelities and so, to protect the guilty, has not seen the light of day until now.

The setting is the exotic Mount Fumfumbolo, which is a volcano and not a puppet in a kids’ TV show. On the side of this volcano, overlooking her banana plantations, widow Adela (Jenny Seagrove) enjoys solitude, the occasional company of her friends and a bit of a fling with louche Lothario, Guy (Jason Durr). He’s been chasing around the mountain but she, although in love with him, will not bump nasties with a married man. She keeps the lid on her simmering desire, you see, bit like the dormant volcano of the title.

Guy’s Mrs shows up and outbitches everyone at a tense little cocktail party. Were it not for the sultry, almost Tennessee Williams setting, this would be a run-of-the-mill suburban drama, with inferior epigrams and an unremarkable premise. However, in the second half, when the volcano blows its stack, the characters are thrown into physical as well as emotional crisis. Guy is unfaithful but not with Adela after all – he shacks up with young bride Ellen (Perdita Avery) in a shack, to take shelter from the eruption. Scratchy wife Melissa (Dawn Steele) rises above it all with some superior archness. Everyone seems to go back to England and poor Adela is left to reconstruct her homestead (three busted light bulbs and some overturned furniture) and finally ‘enjoy’ her solitude and her bananas. It is the calm after the storm, the aftermath of the outpouring.

Jenny Seagrove is elegant and likeable as Adela. Jason Durr is tanned and smarmy as Guy. I particularly liked Finty Williams as Grizelda. Most Cowardesque of the bunch is Robin Sebastian as her husband Robin. The cast keep on the right side of the ‘teddibly teddibly’ kind of delivery and Dawn Steele oozes arrogance and evil as uberbitch Melissa. Roy Marsden’s direction keeps the somewhat outmoded dialogue sparking along, although when the volcano blows, I would rather see a blackout than the dangling gantry of lights and the plastic plants being strewn across the stage.

It is a pity this play didn’t do the business when it was written in the 1950s. Being shoved in a drawer and forgotten denied it its initial impact and robbed it of becoming a theatrical milestone for its frank discussions of sex, morality and sexual politics. Now its time has passed. The world has moved on in more ways than one; the play is something of a curiosity rather than the cutting-edge discussion-provoker it should have been.