When I saw this at a Brighton matinee last September, my first thoughts were ‘if there’s a fire, we’re all toast: most of this lot are old enough to have known Noel Coward personally. Or his dad.’
The Duke of York’s audience may be sprightlier, but thoughts of longevity are inescapable, mainly because 68-year-old Felicity Kendal invites deservedly envious gasps of ‘she doesn’t look it’ from the women and long-remembered ‘Good Life‘ lust from the gents.
This is a play I know extremely well. My own production (“one of the best the Nuffield Theatre has housed” – Guardian) formed part of my Theatre Studies degree at Lancaster in 1973, the year Noel Coward died. I have seen every major revival, and some dodgy tours, from the splendid Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray version which first inspired me as a teenager at the Grand Theatre Leeds, to glossy London and Chichester productions with Dame Judi, Maria Aitken, Penelope Keith, Geraldine McEwan and Diana Rigg. And the awful one with Lindsay Duncan strutting about in jodhpurs.
The plot is simple – retired actress Judith, her chick-lit novelist husband and twin children live a bohemian life in mansion-taxable comfort in Berkshire. Each invites a guest from London for the weekend without telling the others and in a succession of humiliating games and in-joke play-acting contrives to alienate all of them until they leave without a polite farewell.
Ninety years on, it’s still Coward’s finest comedy: very short, very crisp, there is no redundant material and it has stonking parts for everyone from the squeaky ingenue to the mature actress for whom Judith Bliss is a total gift.
Having said that, of course, everyone must take their lead from the lead and in this instance Kendal is occasionally overacting even when Judith is not. Consequently Simon Shepherd as novelist David has also been goaded into overdoing it even though he’s playing the most naturalistic of the four family members, and his seduction scene with society vamp Myra Arundel (Sara Stewart a significant presence but in a terrible wig) lacks conviction as a result. The kids are well-cast, Alice Orr-Ewing as Sorel has definitely studied Phoebe Waller Bridge who played it so finely in the Lindsay Duncan iteration but Edward Franklin as Simon still sounds too contemporary to pass for a convincing flannelled fool.
This is a generalised fault: Kendal varies Judith’s bright skittishness with an undertow of frustrated vehemence using a growling chest voice which sounds simply too sitcom modern, and both Shepherd and Stewart need tighter direction to toe the twenties line as does new casting Edward Killingback as the gormless and over-hearty trainee boxer coughing scrambled egg into the front stalls, too crude for Coward. Michael Simkins is the most excellent as the earnest ‘diplomatist’ whom Sorel has ensnared, perfect in phrasing, in manner and in body language. The production could be even stronger if Simkins played David and Shepherd the diplomat.
It’s traditional to cast a good comic actress in the role of Clara, Judith’s former dresser now turned maid – this is the role which launched the career of Imelda Staunton (and, yes, I saw that 1976 production at the Watermill in Newbury too) but Mossie Smith fudges the opportunity somewhat by giving us a rather pedestrian charlady.
The set by Peter McKintosh is fantastic, a gorgeous Voysey inheritance to its Arts and Crafts fingertips, a house of which Noël would definitely have approved, and the costumes are an explosion of handkerchief hemlines. It’s good, but possibly not as good as the West End, and Coward’s legacy, deserve.
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