Jermyn Street Theatre is reviving Noël Coward’s complete cycle of one-act plays, Tonight at 8.30, for the first time in London since Coward himself starred in the 1936 West End premiere. How well do you know the plays (beyond just Still Life, which later became immortalised onscreen as Brief Encounter)? Gen up below – and then get booking!
In the 1920s and 1930s, Noel Coward had a succession of hits, from the large-cast musicals Bitter Sweet and Cavalcade to the comedies Design for Living and Private Lives. He starred in the last opposite Gertrude Lawrence, a combination which proved hugely popular with audiences. He decided to give the public more of what they wanted and more variety for the pair as performers so he wrote Tonight at 8.30 as”acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself”.
The first six of the series of one-act plays were presented at Manchester’s Opera House in 1935. The final three were added for the show’s London premiere at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre, where Coward and Lawrence continued to top the bill. While there have been major productions of parts of the cycle in New York (in 1948), in London (1981) and in Chichester (2006) and English Touring Theatre tackled the cycle on tour in 2014, that premiere at the Phoenix was the last time all nine plays were seen together onstage in London – until now.
As opposed to the 1930s, when the plays were performed in various combinations, for this major presentation at Jermyn Street Theatre, artistic director Tom Littler has arranged Tonight at 8.30 as three distinct triple bills, entitled Secret Hearts, Nuclear Families and Bedroom Farces. Each trio (with an approximate running time of two hours and 15 minutes) stands alone – but audiences are strongly encouraged see all three.
“A short play, having a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over padding, deserves a better fate, and if, by careful writing, acting and producing I can do a little towards reinstating it in its rightful pride, I shall have achieved one of my more sentimental ambitions.” – Noel Coward in the introduction to the published edition of Tonight at 8.30
Coward’s dazzling versatility shines across the nine plays. From the railway station of Still Life to the Pacific island of We Were Dancing, from the music hall of Red Peppers to the ache of The Astonished Heart, this is the first complete London revival since 1936.
Jermyn Street artistic director Tom Littler has arranged the nine plays into three trios – called Nuclear Families, Bedroom Farces, and Secret Hearts – and directs them all. Nine actors play 73 roles across the nine plays. The ensemble cast are: Sara Crowe, Ian Hallard, Nick Waring, Miranda Foster, Rosemary Ashe, Jeremy Rose, Boadicea Ricketts, Ben Wiggins and Coward specialist Stefan Benardzcyk, who also provides musical direction and piano accompaniment.
On Saturdays and Sundays, audiences can see the entire cycle across a single day, with performances starting at 11.30am, 3.30pm and 7.30pm, providing breaks for lunch and dinner. You can choose a Weekend Trilogy Ticket for these performances, or upgrade to the specially packaged Weekend Trilogy Ticket + Meal Deal your day, which also includes a two-course dinner and glass of Prosecco next door at Getti Restaurant as well as signed programme and free drink.
Tonight at 8.30 plays in repertory with Tomorrow at Noon, featuring three new plays by Jenny Ayres, Emma Harding, and Morna Young, each of which reacts to one of Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 plays, and responds to it in a contemporary voice. Ayres, Harding and Young were chosen from more than 390 anonymous entrants.
“I knew marrying you was a mistake seven years ago – but I never realised the thoroughness of the mistake until now.”
Affairs of the heart, the bed, and the chequebook are wittily and touchingly captured in this trio of plays, containing some of Noel Coward’s most popular music.
- We Were Dancing, a comedy featuring Coward’s song of the same title, is set on an idyllic island, where the guests of a country club are enmeshed a complex web of extra-marital affairs.
- Ways and Means is a comedy about the bohemian Stella and Toby, who go from villa to villa on the Côte d’Azur. But when they cannot pay their gambling debts, they plan to make an easy fortune…
- Shadow Play is a ‘musical fantasy’. Peppered with songs and dances including ‘Play, Orchestra, Play’, it is a moving portrait of a marriage under strain.
“I know that this is the beginning of the end – not the end of my love for you – but the end of our being together.”
Secret dreams, unfulfilled ambitions and impossible desires: this trio of two plays and one musical comedy has everything from outrageous farce to heartbreaking romance.
- Star Chamber is a comedy about a charity committee meeting, set in a theatre and peopled by outrageous characters.
- Red Peppers is a riotous tribute to music-hall. George and Lily Pepper battle with tiny dressing rooms, a grumbling audience, and a drunken pianist.
- Still Life was later immortalised as Brief Encounter. In a station refreshment room, Laura meets Alec.
“You’d better come and dine tonight – I’m on a diet, so there’s only spinach.”
The glitter of middle-class life is exposed as the thinnest of façades in these three plays, ranging from laugh-out-loud comedy to mesmeric drama.
- Family Album is a social comedy wickedly poking fun at Victorian sentiment. The Featherways family have gathered to mourn their father. But the siblings are not on their best behaviour.
- Hands Across the Sea is a glittering comedy reminiscent of Hay Fever. Naval officer Peter Gilpin and his wife ‘Piggie’ are the most eccentric party hosts in London.
- The Astonished Heart is a gripping drama of secrecy and betrayal. A brilliant psychiatrist, Christian appears to have the perfect life. Then he meets Leonora…
Tonight at 8.30 runs from 10 April to 20 May 2018 at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1 6ST. Performances – running in repertory with Tomorrow at Noon – are Wednesdays to Sundays at 7.30pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 11.30am and 3.30pm. Tickets are priced £30 (concessions £20), with weekend trilogy days priced £75 (concessions £50). CLICK HERE FOR FULL SCHEDULE & TO PURCHASE TICKETS!