Touring – reviewed at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight may be billed as a comedy but this story of one man’s fear of mortality and exposure, is tinged with tragedy. The Theatre Royal Bath’s polished production, which is currently touring the UK, glories in Simon Callow’s exquisite enunciation.
It’s a real treat to listen to Coward’s scathing, waspish put-downs, and lines filled with nuance and emotion, delivered with finesse from one of our premier actors. The play, which opened just a year before homosexuality was decriminalised, was one of Coward’s last full-length pieces and signalled the end of his acting career. The playwright died seven years later.
Twilight was the final part of Coward’s Suite in Three Keys, a double bill of short plays and one full-length piece, all set in the same sumptuous Swiss hotel (beautifully re-imagined by designer, Simon Higlett). He apparently got the idea from a memoir about his rival and contemporary, Somerset Maugham, and from reading a biography about the essayist and dandy, Max Beerbohm.
Stephen Unwin’s sophisticated production, which I caught at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, is a play of two halves. Until the interval we’re shocked into laughter at the writer, Sir Hugo Latymer’s, appalling behaviour towards his wife of 20 years, Hilde (Jessica Turner). Callow’s obnoxious manner as the ageing novelist is atrocious. He appears a misogynist, arrogant and boorish – yet she stands there, quietly accepting his contempt. But it soon becomes clear that it is all a defence mechanism to try and shield himself from the inevitable.
He’s old and sick and, unless it is hypochondria, is terrified of facing a grim and limited future. Worse, a former lover has got in touch and she wants to meet him for “a rendezvous with the past”. Latymer can only guess her motive. Hilde, constantly berated and insulted by her husband, finds the whole thing rather curious. Jane Asher, looking quite stunning, makes a grand entrance as the ex-lover, Carlotta, a “failed” actress who had a two-year fling with Latymer before it all ended horribly.
The pair sit down for an awkward conversation. Latymer can’t resist spitefully unleashing a string of invective but Carlotta doesn’t rise to the bait.
Over a fractious, short-tempered dinner, she reveals why she has come and it is a bombshell that rocks the ailing old man of letters to the core.
Post-interval the play really picks up pace as secrets and lies are exposed, Latymer’s vulnerability is laid bare and truths about the writer, his marriage and his life are faced.
Callow and Asher are a delight to watch as they bring out the subtlety and depth of Coward’s dialogue.
Lines that are petulant, funny, barbed and outrageous are also melancholic and revelatory, exposing the truth about facing up to one’s past and being called to account.
It’s profoundly tragic that a man like Latymer had to live a lie his entire life – a stance which the more metropolitan Carlotta roundly condemns.
Touching, funny and heart-rending, A Song at Twilight is an impeccable production with Callow giving an outstanding turn as the irascible Hugo.
A Song at Twilight opens tonight at Cambridge Arts Theatre and plays until Saturday before continuing to Theatre Royal Windsor (March 11-16); Rose Theatre, Kingston (March 19-23); Malvern Theatres (March 25-30); Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne (April 1-6); and Theatre Royal, Norwich (April 8-13).
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