The British are still obsessed with class. However, this has changed in the last sixty years and whether you believe society is now driven by education, fame or money there’s still a national interest in thinking about where you belong and how this means you should behave. Noel Coward’s Relative Values was written on the cusp of these changes, where the old three-class system evolved into something else. Peppered with references to post-war social upheaval, it accurately presaged the shift of power from the old aristocratic order to a more celebrity-driven world.
Set in a Kentish mansion in 1951, Felicity, Dowager Countess of Marshwood is reluctantly preparing for the imminent arrival of her son the Earl and his latest fiancée, Hollywood actress Miranda Frayle, after a whirl-wind romance. But her plans are thrown into disarray when her ladies maid hands-in her notice after twenty-years of service, because, unbeknownst to her mistress, Miranda is Moxy’s long-lost sister. And if that wasn’t trying enough, Miranda’s former fiancé and fellow Hollywood star Don Lucas arrives to win her back.
This play explores ideas of class and duty, largely supporting the idea that people are much happier in their place. To Felicity a Hollywood actress is completely unsuitable to replace her as the Countess of Marshwood, whilst Moxy cannot pretend to be anything other than a ladies maid. This exemplifies Coward’s own position in 1951 – somewhere between the traditions of the past and the encroaching new wave of plays depicting realistic working-class life. By chance this is geographically represented in the current West End; up the road from the Harold Pinter theatre is Blithe Spirit on Shaftesbury Avenue, or head south across the river to A Taste of Honey, at the National. Relative Values then sits between the drawing-room comedies of the past and the kitchen-sinks of the future.
Like Helen in A Taste of Honey, the inhabitants and guests of Marshwood House learn that trying to break free of your class only leads to unhappiness and everyone usually ends up where they started. But having said all that, this is still a great dramatic comedy, full of the trademark humour but with all of these fascinating themes and social issues bubbling beneath the surface – in many ways it’s one of Coward’s most socially relevant plays, enhanced here by the use of newsreels about daily life in Britain tying scenes together and reminding us of life beyond the elite.
The performances too are extremely appealing; Patricia Hodge is really very good as the Dowager Countess driving between snobbish disregard for her younger successor, and a fiercely feudal need to protect the household. She relies on the advice and counsel of her servants, and throughout this play goes to considerable lengths to preserve their happiness and continued service. This is also Rory Bremner’s theatrical debut as the Jeeves-like butler Creswell, considerably smarter than his employers and hiding his working-class accent beneath a polished and verbose veneer (is this a hint that brains rather than breeding will define society in the future?). Caroline Quentin was sick when I went so Moxy was played very well by her understudy Jody Elen Machin. It’s quite an emotional role, almost dramatic at times so to produce a very accomplished performance at short notice was impressive.
This production has transferred from Bath and it’s important that regional theatre is able to feed into London as easily as West End shows tour the UK. Overall this is well worth seeing, a great cast, lovely set and ample Coward humour. For those looking for a little more substance, there’s plenty beneath the surface to reference wider social changes. Perhaps its key accomplishment is accurately foreseeing a changing societal culture where status based on class is replaced by one worshipping celebrity.
Relative Values is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21 June, tickets start at £20.