Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 20 May 2018
This is a fabulously quixotic enterprise directed by Tom Littler: a revival of all nine of Noel Coward’s one-act plays, written in 1935 as a showcase for the diverse talents of Gertrude Lawrence and his goodself, under the title Tonight At 8.30. Littler has grouped them in three sets, which you may see on consecutive nights or – as I did – take in all of them on a Saturday or Sunday: thus from the 1930s to the Netflix generation comes a prototype binge-watch.
Littler’s pattern (the grouping and names are his, not Coward’s) gives each set two lighter ones before the interval and something more poignant (but still with its laughs, believe me) after it. The ensemble of nine players switch throughout, as in old rep companies, and there is something fascinating about seeing them change between these squibs, sympathizing with the way one is in and out of Brylcreem, or startled when you fail for a moment to recognize that the red-nosed northern comedian is the same chap as the timid Malayan planter.
From this first set Secret Hearts – it doesn’t matter how you see them, but on Sunday it was first off – it is clear from the start that these are all good sharp comedy performers but with a capacity when needed to evoke profound pain: Miranda Foster and Nick Waring are Alec and Laura in Still Life, on which Brief Encounter was based. But in the main what we get is top-hole character-acting. So Jeremy Rose’s debonair old matinee-idol Julian becomes red-nosed comic George Pepper and then a passing soldier in Still Life, while Foster’s grande-dame diva turns faded music-hall sketch-actress and then the respectable smalltown housewife Laura suffering in the station buffet. Rosemary Ashe is a diamond-clipped veteran backstage in Star Chamber, a gloriously vulgar Lily Pepper and then an extreme of refinement behind that buffet counter.
Which all adds to the fun. So to the plays in detail: I had never seen Star Chamber – few moderns have, and in the 30s it only ran once, apparently – but it is pure essence of Noel: an unashamedly self-indulgent mickey-take of actors’ ways, as eight variously appalling self-absorbed thesps sit on a fundraising committee frustrating a timid accountant’s attempt to read the financial report. In this cast one first notes that the newest-fledged, young Boadicea Ricketts, is a proper gem. Her gloriously ghastly ich-bin-zo ingenue would have pleased Coward no end, passing the Worthington test but unlikely to be bearable for long in a greenroom.
Then Red Peppers (framed with the deathless “has anybody seen our ship”) reminds us of something which deepens through the ninesome: that Stefan Bednarczyk is a very good character actor as well as the current king of cabaret and musical director. By the time we get to Still Life, he is an Albert Godby to match Stanley Holloway himself.
Actually, of all the three Still Life is the revelation: it is far tighter, and in the end move dryly perceptive about love affairs, than the film Brief Encounter. For one thing it moves faster: not a word wasted, no need for other sets, and the couple do, unlike their film versions, consummate their love. And having the buffet and station staff in view all the time, rather than cut-away to, displays Coward’s rueful talent for counterpoint, comedy amid sorrow. Myrtle and Albert’s growing closeness (and implied consummation) is funny, but less cartoonish. And I had never noticed before how Beryl and Stanley, the teenage skivvies, have their fifteen precious minutes of snogging sabotaged by the middle-aged adulterers’ self-absorbed insistence on hanging about in the darkened buffet so Beryl can’t lock up. Tart, knowing, real, unromantic. Beautiful.
And so, rejoicing, on to the next three…
SET 2: BEDROOM FARCES
One of the pleasures for an amateur Cowardologist is spotting echoes and pre-echoes of other plays; and not least marvelling at the Master’s particular gift for sending up situations in one play which he takes with painful seriousness in another. In this case the first – WE WERE DANCING – sends up the coup-de-foudre love at first sight. We are with Colonial-Naval-Mercantile Brits of the stiffupperlip classes on a fictional South Sea Island. Think Somerset Maugham rewritten for Round the Horne: very Charles-and-Fiona. Sara Crowe, an actress who can be heart-wrenchingly innocent but also very funny indeed, has fallen for Karl, a passing agent, in two minutes of dancing. They go through the full this-thing-is-bigger-than-both-of-us routine, to the irritation of her stiff husband (Nick Waring, channelling all that RN rigidity Coward both loved and guyed). Rosemary Ashe, another glorious comedienne, is a furiously snappish sister-in-law, and the divine Bednarczyk a treasurable drunk. Passion flares and collapses at Hay Fever speed.
WAYS AND MEANS is slyer, without music (a fair few of these squibs include a song) and finds Miranda Foster and Nick Waring a couple again, but many miles from the earnest doctor and housewife of Still Life. They’re spongers in a Cote d’Azur villa, of a class “brought up to be merely pleasant”, and now being thrown out by a sweetly steely hostess (Crowe again) to make room for the next guest . They’re flat broke owing to the Casino, and resentful of richer guests ( Ricketts this time a predatory Russian princess) Nice exasperated coupledom gives way to mild panic, and then an opportunistic piece of dastardliness, rather P.G.Wodehouse in a way, which one can only applaud.
The bed is changed (there is in each set of plays a elegantly deliberate and funny use of the fact that we watch the stage crew, especially where there is no interval, and Louie Whitemore’s set and Emily Stuart’s costumes are quite brilliant in their detail.) So at last the more problematic SHADOW PLAY ends the trio. I found it the weakest: Crowe this time is a betrayed wife, her husband asking for divorce (or so she fears). She is sinking into sleep with three pills and carried back – with more of those plaintively mawkish Coward love songs than elsewhere – into a tangled set of flashback dreams and memories of their ectstatic, if heavily clichéd, courtship and Venetian honeymoon. It is ahead of its time, indeed I felt as if Coward would rather it was a film, and somehow it failed to engage. But in fairness I should say that two of my companions on the long day were intrigued and pleased by it.
SET 3: NUCLEAR FAMILIES
Three drawing-rooms in this set. The first FAMILY ALBUM sees a splendily stiff Victorian 1860s family group of five adult siblings , three of their spouses, and Bednarczyk as a magnificently decrepit and selectively deaf old family butler. They are all in deep old-fashioned mourning, most spectacularly Sara Crowe as the ageing, creaking, resentful Lavinia in half an acre of what must be that legendary fabric, black bombazine. Fuelled by sherry and Madeira they mourn the dead patriarch, who we rather suspect early on (and know later) was a bastard. Coward enjoys a bit of stiff retro naval chat about muzzle-loaders, and gradually the Victorian-photo stiffness of the group dissolves into first contumely, then childhood nostalgia as an old trunk is opened, and finally to creaking Lavinia’s drop-dead revelation and a butler moment to cherish in memory forever. It is a very funny one, this, but with streaks of real pain once more. Chekhov is never far from the edges of your mind in these plays, even when PG Wodehouse is nearer the centre…
HANDS ACROSS THE SEA, which follows it, suddenly reminds you in turn that Coward is also a literary ancestor of Ayckbourn. Another navy household, still recognizable today if you mix at all with the brisk, upper-middle professional Services and jolly-hockeysticks classes. Lady Maureen – “Piggie”, blithely entitled and carelessly, cruelly friendly, has been on a world trip and vaguely invited various Rawlinsons, or possibly Wadhursts, from Malaya. A couple turn up, amid a domestic-professional-social bustle of escaping officer husbands and a hilariously stage-stealing, booming, barking Rosemary Ashe as Piggie’s mate the Hon. Clare. The visitors are the wrong couple. They are terrified, cowed, and polite (Ian Hallard back in the Brylcreem). We get some of the best one-sided phone conversations on any stage ever, and Boadicea Ricketts as the most intimidatingly smug of parlourmaids. One wipes sweat from one’s brow, identifying with the timid planters and reflecting that there actually still are upper-middle households as terrifying as this to visit. Gorgeous.
THE ASTONISHED HEART is pure, overwrought romantic Coward, returning to the coup-de-foudre of Still Life mingled with a grimmer version of the the impossible relationship of Private Lives, and ending in real darkness. Nick Waring is a psychiatrist, his wife (Miranda Foster) struggling with honourable generosity, shows us a moving Coward attempt to rewrite the conventions of infidelity and pain. She wants to contain and understand the humanity of his sudden affair with her predatory, confused friend (Sara Crowe). The title is taken from Deuteronomy: “The LORD shall smite you with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart”. It is very moving.
The whole enterprise, in the tiny Jermyn Theatre, has involved weeks of intricate work, feats of learning astonishing even for actors , 89 costumes, brilliantly devised by Emily Stuart, and some items of furniture which must be making backstage a bit of an ordeal. And was it worth it? Oh yes.
Box office 0207 287 2875 jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 20 May
with an extra Stage Management Mouse for the crew
and Costume Mouse for the design and the rapid changes..