During the Second World War one of Noël Coward’s avowed aims was to raise the spirits of the nation, so it is entirely appropriate that at this time of crisis his work should be showcased again to bring a smile to the lips and a sentimental tear to the eye. A Marvellous Party, commissioned by the Noël Coward Foundation, ostensibly marks the centenary of Coward’s first appearance on stage and has been produced to raise funds for actors on both sides of the Atlantic who are struggling with the effects of the pandemic. It is a star-studded affair full of wit, humour and reminiscence.
The first piece, given the current restrictions, sets a wonderfully ironic tone as Cush Jumbo recites the poem I Have To Go Out And Be Social; deliciously inappropriate. Other poetic highlights come from Derek Jacobi (The Boy Actor), Indira Varma (Social Grace) and Stephen Fry (The Bar On The Piccola Marina). True the latter was actually a song (of sorts) from Coward’s Las Vegas revue days but in Fry’s delivery you can still hear the clipped tones of the original which demolishes the central character of the narrative with scalpel-like precision. Similarly prose pieces from Emma Thompson and Alan Cumming pick apart the pretensions and longings of the subjects.
There are plenty of songs, too. Partners Kate Royal and Julian Ovenden are able to duet on A Room With A View and actually be in that room together. Yes, it’s wistful and sentimental but you could not represent Coward’s work successfully without something in that vein. Even more wistful and beautifully performed is Giles Terera singing If Love Were All in a haunting a cappella style. The main highlight songwise, however, is rightly saved until last when we are treated to 91-year-old Dame Patricia Routledge performing I Went To A Marvellous Party. To use a term which Coward himself would never have dreamed of using, she really goes for it. We really believe her when she claims: “I couldn’t have liked it more.”
My only disappointment with the content is that there wasn’t space for more of Coward’s dramatic work. Indeed, there is only one all to brief extract from The Vortex in which real life mother and son Lia Williams and Joshua James do polite battle. Surely some space should have/could have been made for extracts from Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter or dozens of others. Although Coward was adept at writing in any format to most of us he was first and foremost a dramatist and so this aspect of his work seems woefully under represented. Fortunately we are reminded of his witty way with one liners as Robert Lindsay pops up regularly as Coward himself in a box at the Haymarket uttering some of the Master’s famous aphorisms about actors, critics and the media (“Television is for appearing on, not looking at”). Regular appeals for donations are made by Fry and Judi Dench – sadly we only get the slightest of anecdotes from the latter rather than an actual piece of Coward’s writing.
The pieces on display only represent a tiny fraction of Coward’s output and tend to concentrate on less well known examples but successfully put his voice centre stage even if there is no actual stage to put them on. Most of the performers have filmed themselves in their own homes so the format does become a tad repetitive. It’s interesting that when a piece is shown on location (such as The Vortex shot in outdoor sunshine) it gains that much more life, demonstrating just how important setting can be to the theatrical experience. That said, I suppose we have all become rather inured to watching talking heads framed by their own bookshelves. Were he still alive I’m sure Coward would have had something witty to say about that particular phenomenon!