Tag Archives: Noel Coward

Peace in Our Time – Union Theatre

Peace in Our Time - Union Theatre (by Phil Swallow)

The theatre V.E. Day Commemorations are officially underway with a few big events ahead including the relocation of Sheridan’s The Rivals to a 1940s airbase as the National Theatre stages Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s much anticipated new comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again next month. But first, the Union Theatre  in Southwark has found a long-forgotten Noel Coward play written in 1946 which assume the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and conquered the UK shortly afterwards. Given our modern perception of Coward’s work as all pithy witticisms, cocktails and cigarette holders, a counter-factual history set entirely in the private bar of an ordinary London pub may surprise you. But Coward’s writing about human nature and experience is far more relevant  than it is often allowed to be, and with a frighteningly prescient understanding of nostalgia, Peace in Our Time receives its first UK revival at an appropriate time.

Last year Matthew Warchus heeded these pleas to unleash Coward from his period confinement and his pseudo-40s production of Present Laughter at the Old Vic has been handsomely rewarded with critical acclaim and plenty of award nominations. Here, the Union have learnt these lessons and while this version of Peace in Our Time by necessity retains its Second World War setting, director Phil Willmott largely avoids the mannered and overly-stylised interpretation of Coward’s characters.

Instead he creates a show that has many salient points to make to modern audiences who have lived through the pomp and misdirected patriotism of recent years where our history has become a political tool to sway emotion with rose-tinted tales of former glories, a world that never really existed. Knowing that as long ago as the mid-1940s Britain’s military past was being evoked for dubious purposes seems prophetic and Coward’s reference in this play to Britain’s ‘bloated pride’ and unreasonable belief in its past attainments is a fascinating one given how forcibly the Second World War has since featured in modern rhetoric, used as a means to convince and control.

The substance of the plot essentially focuses on whether it is best to collaborate or resist the German occupation and the extent to which different characters play along with the regime. Coward uses the timeline of the original conflict to establish the parameters of this two Act play which opens in 1940 and ends in 1945, reimagining the course of the war before setting history back on its original path. But he is sparring with the details of Nazi control and only one German officer has a significant speaking role, focusing the rest of the story entirely on the British customers and publican family that create a patchwork of London life.

Peace in Our Time is a long play, running at around 2 hours and 40-minutes, and for some the over-arching jingoism could feel dated while the loose plot starts to drag in the second half as more characters are unnecessarily introduced and the story becomes a tad overloaded with melodrama. But Coward was an enthusiastic proponent of British verve and determination during the war, penning propagandist films including In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed all designed to bolster morale, so this play, while considerably different from his most celebrated works, had a social purpose designed to instill community and faith in the essential decency of most British people at a time of national crisis.

Yet, there is a darkness to this piece that slowly builds a sense of danger in which the severity of the Nazi regime increases as resistance to it grows. Coward drip feeds information to the audience carefully and conversationally, the fate of Winston Churchill, the position of the Royal family and the impact of restrictive measures on the freedom of the public, all delivered with little sensation, and in Willmott’s atmospherically smoky staging you feel the grip tightening as the years go by.  The pub location gives Coward the freedom to introduce a vast array of characters, each of which is lightly but distinctly drawn as working men, middle class ladies and club singers rub shoulders with secretaries, retired couples and the odd German officer. There is a real coming together in Coward’s vision of London and of the pub in particular as a safe haven for all kinds of people.

This vision of early/mid-twentieth-century life is a familiar one and there are tones of Patrick Hamilton whose novels, particularly Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Hanover Square are centred around a specific homely pub, while also evoking Norman Collins’s book London Belongs to Me evokes the London working class experience of lodging houses filled with all kinds of people existing side by side on the eve of war. In 2018, the National Theatre successfully staged Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell a similar multi-perspective play set in a drinking den shortly after the war, so Coward’s focus on location is a significant one, giving his characters a reason to come together in a public space, but one that speaks to a wider strand of literature interested in the public house as a place of destruction and redemption.

Reuben Speed’s design is a canny one, a long bar which splits in two and is moved around the auditorium to mark the changes in scene and time period. It is also notable how the bar is used to shift the audience’s perspective from the customers to the publican’s family throughout the play with the very first scene primarily introducing the wider group. The bar staff stand with their back to the audience, but later the bar is shown in diagonal, giving equal weight to both sets of characters, while at others it is the landlord’s concerns that take precedence, facing the viewer while the patrons turn their backs to the auditorium. In this way Willmott uses the small Union space and structured lighting design quite effectively to move the psychology of the play along, while Ralph Warman’s sound design helps to create moments of intensity as external political dangers threaten the initial neutrality of the pub.

It is a play that relies on a lot of dramatic convenience with characters undertaking expanded lives off-stage that don’t always ring true and when Coward digresses into the growing resistance movement the play certainly starts to creak. In 1946, this would perhaps have resonated more significantly with an audience newly released from the burden of war and interested in what might have been, but it now feels rather heavy-handed, a forced attempt to demonstrate British pluck and to insist that small acts of resistance, however satisfying, will ultimately lead to bigger protests. Coward isn’t necessarily wrong to have such faith in British decency but Peace in Our Time is at its best in the less grandiose moments, where small groups of characters just talk about themselves and the impact of the war. This does more to create a feeling of good people holding-out together than elaborate story arcs and silly twists – but it is what people needed to hear in 1946.

As landlord Fred Shattock, Patrick Bailey holds the show together, a man who is everyone’s friend and a pillar of his community. Troubled by the loss of his pilot son in the disastrous Battle of Britain, Fred plays by the rules without approving of them and looks for any opportunity to cheat the system to benefit his beloved customers. Bailey’s warm performance builds a growing sense of determination in Fred to fight back while remaining rational about ensuring his business stays afloat. Virge Gilchirst is a more emotional figure as his wife Nora who happily stands by her husband but suffers under the pressure of maintaining a public presence.

The customers largely divide into resistance and collaborators, although the degrees of this alter across the play and Coward is reasonably forgiving of characters like singer Lyia (Caitlin Rutter) and the gender-swapped George (Helen Rose-Hampton) who accept drinks from the German officer and jolly along but later are clearly shown doing their bit. Interesting texture is provided by the other regulars including outspoken novelist Janet (Carlotta Lucking) whose fierce wit is showcased in a couple of explosive arguments, Jemima Watling’s Alma Boughton is a well-spoken woman who gives little away about her personal life but comes in every day for solidarity, while the Graingers (Katy Feeney and Robert Lane) forlornly prop-up the bar as they worry for the fate of their son imprisoned in an Isle of Wight concentration camp. Along with many others in this 22 character piece, they create a feeling of friends and neighbours, a community suffering and surviving together.

Coward is less forgiving of the collaborator faction using two of his creations to explore the arguments for playing up to the enemy and accepting their inevitable dominance. Joe Mason’s Bobby Paxton although a small role is a man who blows with the wind, a chancer happy to take what he can right now rather than worry about the future, while Dominic McChesney’s Chorley is a far more dangerous man who affects a veneer of smooth charm and indifference but has sold his soul so completely to the Nazi rulers that he looks to protect their (and his) interests above anything which threatens the safety of the pub. It is, however, a mistake for McChesney to pitch his performance as a kind of Coward impression, entirely out of kilter with the more sober performances of the rest of the cast and given Coward’s message in this play and his known anti-fascist views – he was reputedly on a Gestapo death list – to imagine the Nazi-sympathising Chorley as Coward seems wrong-headed.

Peace in Our Time may not be the best Noel Coward play but its long absence from the stage is an unreasonable one as it showcases a playwright whose work is far broader than the handful of comedies we frequently see. As a writer of human behaviour, Coward taps into the irrational fears that drive people to behave badly or selfishly under pressure, and in week when panic buying and stockpiling of household goods tops the news, this play gives us much to reflect on. Even after V.E. Day and European liberation Coward knew that courage is not distributed equally and level-headedness maybe less so, as the UK faces some of its biggest social challenges since the Second World War, time will tell if he’s right  Counter-factual histories always ask us to consider what we would do in the same situation, which of us would collaborate and who would resist, can you be so sure you would act for the good of the whole rather than for yourself?

Peace in Our Time is at the Union Theatre until 4 April with tickets at £22 (concessions available). Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Blithe Spirit – Touring Production

Blithe Spirit - Touring Production (by Nobby Clark)

Ahead of its West End transfer in a couple of weeks, the Theatre Royal Bath production of Blithe Spirit stopped in Richmond as part of a UK-wide tour. Noel Coward’s beloved and endlessly revived comedy – here presented in traditional 1930/40s stylings – comes on the back of a plea for modernity when the Old Vic presented a sensational pseudo-period and morally up-to-date version of Present Laughter with a sexually-fluid hero who made Coward’s work feel fresh and ever adaptable. Blithe Spirit, by contrast, is far more wedded to its original setting and while the louche lifestyle of Charles Condomine and the context of inter-war spiritualism is confining, Coward’s knowledge of human behaviour remains as sharp as ever.

With famous faces from Margaret Rutherford to Alison Steadman and Angela Lansbury in the most recent West End production, the role of the dark arts in Blithe Spirit has always been the focus for directors, bolstered by a scene-stealing performance from whoever plays the central comic role of Madame Arcarti. The seance section in Act One and later attempts to rid the Condomine house of its unwelcome presence are hilarious highlights that are so often the key selling point of any production. But Madame Arcarti appears in far less of the play than you might remember, so in between the exasperated novelist Charles, his increasingly brittle second wife Ruth and the glamorous, ghostly Elvira who was the first Mrs Condomine engage in plenty of waspish high jinks of their own.

Director Richard Eyre has understood this brilliantly, and while Madame Arcarti receives her due, this production knows that Blithe Spirit is really about the effects of marital discord. What is often interpreted as playful banter between Charles and Ruth here becomes much more serious, framing the play from its earliest moments with the picture of a couple whose relationship is disintegrating, bickering endlessly and surely heading for the divorce courts before too long anyway. And suddenly, the psychology of the play snaps more convincingly into place – why are we encouraged to suppose that Charles summoned Elvira’s return, why does he feel a fleeting attraction to her as they fondly reminisce about the good old days, and why is he so casually unperturbed by the pre-interval revelation? Maybe because his marriage is already in decline, well passed the first flush as both he and Ruth admit, settling into indifference and increasingly violent arguments.

And this gender battle is taking place across Anthony Ward’s set which is filled with subtle messages of relationship disquiet. The structure of the living room is itself rather masculine, a stone and timber manor house with grand arches above the thick wooden doors, a beautiful spiral staircase and mezzanine level with shelves of books that reflect the grand intellectualism of its novelist owner. Most pointedly a Victorian boxing print sits above the piano where a man with fists raised looks ready for a skirmish – very much the final position that Charles takes as the fallout from the Medium’s mishap plagues his serenity. The soft-furnishings also betray a clash of taste with the sofa and armchair covered in stripes and other Middle Eastern and Oriental patterns that suggest a well-traveled man, over the top of which Ruth has added a floral throw and positioned pots of flowers as though actively imprinting herself on a room she cannot truly belong to. These are expressive and meaningful choices in a production that is full of wonderfully small moments that sit below the overtly silly drivers that Coward has designed so well.

By repositioning Charles and Ruth’s marriage at the heart of this approach to Blithe Spirit, and later that of Charles and Elvira, Eyre creates a production that both builds to a fever pitch of absurdity but also paints a broader picture of the characters’ lives and the context that brought them to this impasse. There are several strands that bubble under the surface, showcased so well in the first scene by Ruth’s thinly veiled impatience with her tiresome neighbours the Bradmans, forced to entertain them to support her husband’s book research. It becomes abundantly clear that the limitations of the Condomine’s social life in semi-rural Kent has long since begun to grate, and there a number of occasions where Ruth mimes along behind the backs of others as over-familiarity and outright boredom at having heard the same stories many time break through her polite middle-class hostess poise.

The advantage of a Company that has been together since last summer and on tour for some weeks is the ease of interaction where these added details flesh-out the comfortable community relationship the actors have created onstage. Throughout there are many of these visual or physical comedy additions where, outside the prescriptions of Coward’s text, looks of confederacy and annoyance are amusingly exchanged. Madame Arcartis often take the opportunity to create further flourishes in her elaborate seance technique and whether she ends up with legs askance on the sofa or sneezing at the too liberal sprinkling of pepper used in one of her spiritual interventions, this production fully utilises every opportunity to make the audience laugh.

But, there is also something a little more sinister in Eyre’s vision for Blithe Spirit removing this a little from the light comedy of old; not only is the growing bitterness of the Condomine marriage barely concealed, but there is also a touch of horror lurking within the overall tone, enough to make the reappearance of Elvira just a little creepy, a decision which reaches its full potential in a very dark conclusion. Borrowing from The Exorcist, the final seance and its consequences may send you home more than a little disturbed.

Yet Eyre – and arguably Coward – save their most disturbing revelation for the very end of the night as Charles reveals a more uncomfortable side to his character with the force of his final ravings revealing quite a different man from the one we had spent the evening with. Controlling and coercive behaviour are implied along with betrayals and a vengefulness that is shocking in its fury. By degrees, then, Eyre turns what is so often a fluffy souffle of a show with twinkly supernatural leanings into a more grounded portrait of broken relationships and retribution, all without losing the farcical froth that makes this a much-loved classic, which is a welcome achievement.

For many, it is Madame Arcarti they come to see and Jennifer Saunders’s performance will not disappoint. Most recent interpretations have lent towards the elaborate spiritualist with sweeping cloak, turban and plenty of beads, but Saunders takes her characterisation closer to (yet still distinct from) Margaret Rutherford. Playing a little older, this Madame Arcarti is a much more ordinary woman, a kind of batty and disheveled Miss Marple-type in tweed skirts and worn woolly cardigans. There is something a bit jolly-hockeysticks about her as she uses the particular phraseology of girls’ public schools that so irritates Ruth, slightly eccentric but well-meaning and more recognisably part of normal village-life.

And Saunders treads a very fine line in the level of exaggeration she allows her character to display, giving what is actually a tightly-controlled comic performance that rarely tips over into the incredulous. Even her most exuberant moments as she falls into trances with plenty of silly voices and extreme gesticulation, or her schoolgirlish excitement at learning she has conjured a spirit are just enough, staying within the parameters of the character Saunders has created. That is not to say she doesn’t have a lot of fun with the role, adding wonderful facial expressions and a wide physical stance, not to mention some excessively furry eyebrows, but this Madame Arcarti is far less bohemian and wispy than some, taking herself and her craft with an almost scientific seriousness, much to Charles’s and our amusement.

There are few actors who could be better cast as Charles Condomine that Geoffrey Streatfeild in a role that really carries the piece and from whose point of view Coward largely writes. Suave cads and bounders are rather a forte for Streatfeild whose most recent work in CellmatesThe Way of the World and the The Beaux’ Stratagem offered plenty of variation on the well-to-do rogue. Streatfeild’s performance carefully shows how the wives were blindsided by Charles’s appearance of charm by doing exactly the same to the audience. In the first scene, we are taken in by his easy appeal, a delightful host actively taking notes on the evening while suffering from the effects of a manifestation no one will believe.

But slowly, Streatfeild alters our perspective as we discover more about his marriages to reveal a man whose argumentative nature and varied adulteries, including a refreshed flirtation with his dead wife, are part of wider forms of noxious behaviour and entitlement. Charles’s ability to play the “wounded spaniel” is just that, playing and when he loses his temper at the end of the story his true feelings are revealed as vitriol pours forth and a petty and more spiteful creature emerges in Streatfeild’s interesting and layered performance.

Maintaining this fascination with surface politeness and the mask of true feeling, Lisa Dillon makes Ruth a far more intriguing proposition. Often presented as the play’s “grown-up” in a straight-woman role around which the chaos turns, Dillon grasps plenty of comic limelight for herself in a hilarious presentation of a woman already reaching the end of her tether long before the ghostly goings-on begin. Under an ever thinning veil of politeness, Dillon’s Ruth jollies along through gritted teeth as her buttoned-up second wife starts to boil over, no longer able to contain her contempt for her silly neighbours and a disappointing husband.

Rose Wardlaw makes the most of trainee maid Edith who careers about the house, given a little more to do by Eyre to add some more of those extra physical humour details that define this production. Emma Naomi’s Elvira however is a little flat, and while she enjoys pouring oil on the troubled waters of the Condomine marriage, despite her chic costume, doesn’t quite find enough allure in the role.

It may take Madame Arcarti’s trance to set the events of this play in motion but the spiritual ructions she unleashes seem minor in comparison to the marital mayhem of the Condomines. Opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 5 March for only 6 weeks, Richard Eyre’s production of Blithe Spirit may lack the fizz of Matthew Warchus’s freeing approach to Present Laughter, but it nonetheless showcases the ongoing relevance of Coward’s insight into complicated human relationships and, without the help of a muddled Medium, the mess that people created for themselves.

Blithe Spirit is at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 5th March to 11th April with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Present Laughter – National Tour

Sam West in Present Laughter (Theatre Royal Bath)

The opportunity to see old and new forms of theatre side-by-side is one of the things that makes London so interesting. In neighbouring playhouses you can see centuries old versions of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy set in either their traditional or modern era, while right next door can be cutting-edge new writing that in technique and presentation dispenses with all accepted theatrical forms. And debate rages between those who feel the West End is stuffed with ‘safe’ classics that attract an older audience and those objecting to noisy new-fangled pieces designed to entice a new generation to the theatre.

Tried and tested plays are a staple of Britain’s theatre landscape, and are as necessary to the popularity and survival of commercial theatre as new writing. During the interval of Present Laughter making at pit-stop at the Richmond Theatre during its national tour, a fellow audience member described the play itself as ‘terribly out-dated’, and this seemed to me not only as an entirely unfair statement about a play that in our celebrity-obsessed world still strikes a rather pertinent chord, but also as a criticism that is only ever levelled at our poor inter-war playwrights like Coward and Rattigan writing about the upper-middle classes. And the same people who yawn at the ‘dated’ nature of this play also baulked at the ultra-modern update of Faustus by Jamie Lloyd and Branagh’s cinematic Romeo and Juliet, so what can you do?

Whether a production feels stale entirely depends on how relevant its themes are to the way we live now or how innovatively its scenes are reimagined for modern audiences, and actually has far less to do with the language of the play then you might suppose. No one would ever say that Shakespeare was dated, or Chekov (as the fascinating transfer of Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull have proved at the National Theatre), or even now Arthur Miller (as the searing A View from the Bridge and the recent No Villain showed), yet no one still speaks in the ways their characters do, if they ever did. Coward’s plays may look and sound a million miles from who we are today but, like Jane Austen, they are filled with biting satire and deep reflection on the nature of personality and social interaction. Certainly productions may be overdone or made to feel a little dusty as a recent production of Hay Fever did, but this version of Present Laughter from the Theatre Royal Bath is a sharp, sophisticated and fiercely relevant comment on star players, ego and community.

Garry Essendine is a famous actor who recently turned 40 but is unable to throw off his more insalubrious habits such as seducing devoted young women and promising them eternal affection…until he wakes up the next morning. As the play opens Daphne has spent the night and the ever theatrical Essendine is trying to get rid of her amidst a crowd of callers including his ex-wife, his producer and other fans. As the actor prepares to depart for a six-play tour of Africa, he is bombarded by demanding visitors – from wannabe actresses, star-struck writers and other men’s predatory wives – while his poor secretary tries to keep him on the straight and narrow.

There are very few actors who are worth an hour’s travel but Sam West is certainly one of them and his Garry Essendine is a delightful combination of frustrated petulance and wild self-love, a public figure exhausted by his own image. He complains bitterly that everyone around him is either acting a part or endlessly intriguing, before switching in and out of various romantic characters himself to rid his living room of whoever is in his way, while engaging in numerous affairs. Although the show builds to a farcical conclusion as Essendine balances his multiple women, West brings out the darker side of Garry’s life, producing a physical pang when Daphne describes him as lonely.

And through that we see the character become far more than a light comic lothario and instead West makes him a man constantly surrounded by people but emotionally alone. Suddenly his nightly exploits become more about his own fears and emptiness than a callous disregard for the women he attracts. Yet West balances this perfectly with the role’s humour and while we see so much more to this Essendine than we initially expect, he remains a crotchety, complex and ultimately selfish man caught up in a mess of his own making – a finely nuanced and utterly enjoyable performance.

The people surrounding Garry are equally entertaining, part support network and part parasites of his fame. Downton’s Phyllis Logan as the seen-it-all secretary Monica Reed is particularly effective as she attempts to guide her star-employer through his appointments while raising a cynical eyebrow at his latest conquest. Logan has a nice partnership with Rebecca Johnson as the estranged Mrs Essendine who makes every attempt to keep Garry out of trouble and clean up after him while retaining a best-friend like confidence.

Of the mistresses, Zoe Boyle is excellent as the predatory and unashamed Joanna Lyppiatt, the snooty and arrogant wife of Essendine’s producer Henry. In many ways Boyle’s Joanna is clearly a female-version of Garry, unconcerned by the havoc she wreaks and it seems entirely appropriate that eventually the two of them would connect. But she also clearly has her own drivers to be a recognised part of their set and to get whatever she wants regardless of the consequences. Of the male roles, Patrick Walshe McBride’s Roland Maule, the young writer who connives at a chance to meet his hero, is the only one hitting a false note with a performance that is too broad for Stephen Unwin’s subtler take on this play.

Simon Higlett has created a traditional but beautiful set, dominated by a spiral staircase and a Dorian-Gray-like painting of Essendine which hangs over proceedings on the upper level. It’s an easily missed but pointed statement about the relationship between youth and fame, and the hero’s behaviour has much to do with fears of ageing. Again, some may call Higlett’s approach ‘old-fashioned’ and it would be fascinating to see a stripped-back version of Coward, but rather than just create a pretty vision, a good set should reflect both the themes and characterisation of the play which Higlett’s certainly does, and its tone of showy-chaos gives plenty of additional visual clues about the nature of Essendine and his lifestyle.

So is Present Laughter outdated, well no actually, it has as much to say about the fawning nature of celebrity now as it did in 1939. Our gossip columns are full of Garry Essendines dating a string of younger women and having tantrums aplenty, while messageboards, comments sections and Twitter accounts are full of the Daphnes and Rolands who adore them. Investment in the talent and star-power of one individual certainly hasn’t gone away, and Coward’s mature and wonderful play reminds us that behind the celebrity there is still a complicated human being who wants to be worshipped and left alone, who needs to be managed but thinks they can cope without it, and who both loves and resents the impositions of fame. Traditional though it maybe, Unwin’s production and West’s superb performance finds new resonance in Coward’s writing, and while we may clamour for the new in London, there should still be a place for the old if they’re as charming as this.

Present Laughter is a Theatre Royal Bath production currently on national tour. Having just completed its Richmond Theatre run, it moves to the Theatre Royal Brighton for its final week (8-13 August).

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Hay Fever – Duke of York’s Theatre

At times it is easy to wonder if the West End is beginning to lack a little imagination, and it feels as if we’re seeing the same old plays going round and round. That’s not to say the plays themselves are intrinsically bad but seeing the same ones appear so often can feel like stagnation. We come to accept that there’ll be at least 3 Hamlets at any one time, but that has become a pivotal rite of passage for many actors. Yet, do we really need yet another revival of Hay Fever just 3 years since the last one?

Now don’t get me wrong, Hay Fever is a great play and immensely popular. I’m also a big Coward fan which is why, despite my misgivings I went along to this – that and the £10 seat courtesy of Last Minute. Yet, in the time I’ve lived in London I’ve seen a pleasant version with Judi Dench and a very good one in 2012 with Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam, so we probably don’t need another quite yet and certainly not one that is at best mediocre. Now Private Lives was sensibly paced, after a wonderful 2001 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, it didn’t come to the West End again until 2010 in a forgettable version with Kim Cattrall and Matthew Mcfaddyn which was utterly eclipsed by the brilliant pairing of Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in 2013. Noel Coward wrote a lot of plays but yet we only get Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit on a loop.

The reviews from Bath, where this production originated, were very good, yet the London critics have been far less favourable. So why did I go? Well, I was at a loose end and found an unbelievably cheap ticket, plus Felicity Kendal was so good in the The Vortex in 2008 with a pre-Downton Dan Stevens, that it seemed worth a shot. It’s not awful, it’s just rather lacklustre and the whole thing is trying a little too hard to be funny. I’ve said this before, but Coward’s writing is like Shakespeare in that it has a rhythm to it that you need to trust. If the actor tries too hard to make it funny then it spoils the subtly and can feel a bit dated, whereas playing it fairly straight and letting the words do their job brings out all the humour for the audience.

Hay Fever is set at the Bliss’s country house one weekend in June. Each member of this bohemian and theatrical family has invited a companion down for the weekend without telling any of the others, so when the guests arrive a series of farcical scenes ensue as the family bicker, swap partners and torture their unsuspecting visitors. Much of the humour derives from the increasing bewilderment of the guests as the Bliss family ‘act-out’. The biggest mistake this production makes is taking the interval too soon; there are three acts and the decision to break after the first (just 45 minutes in) is rather inexplicable. By this point not enough has happened to hook the audience into the various permutations of the story, nor is the end of Act One much of a cliff-hanger. It is more conventional and actually far better to stop after Act Two for several reasons; first Acts One and Two take place on the same day whereas Act Three is the following morning; second, the first two Acts are about cause, building up the drama and oddness of the Bliss family ending with a moment of chaos and confusion, while the final Act is about consequences and resolution thus it is more natural to separate them; third by the end of Act One the audience only has a lingering suspicion about the oddness of the family and doesn’t yet know them well enough to be invested in what’s going on, so it’s not really a suitable moment to stop for drinks. The theatre should strongly consider shifting the interval to help pace the play better in the remainder of its run.

The acting is also rather variable and quite mannered, with some performances quite clearly outstripping the rest. Felicity Kendall is largely very good as Judith Bliss the fading actress matriarch desperate for attention. Her greater familiarity with Coward comes across clearly in making Judith’s eccentricities believable rather than hysterical. It’s a little overplayed at times, particularly in Act One where she practically turns into Fenella Fielding, but hits her stride with the feigned melodrama of the later scenes. Sara Stewart as the vampy Myra Arundel is also great fun, wringing ounces of innuendo and allure from her lines, while displaying a no-nonsense approach to the Bliss intrigues. Michael Simkins is also good as a rather unnoticeable Richard Greatham although doesn’t quite bring the same geek-ish comic charm that Jeremy Northam offered in the 2012 production.

The other parts are unfortunately a little more am-dram, not managing quite so well with the subtly or darker elements of Coward’s script. Alice Orr-Ewing is a rather shouty and unvarying Sorrell, while Edward Killingback as Sandy Tyrell looks like he’s walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse, overdoing the buffoonery and not nearly enough of the ardent star-struck admirer. These secondary characters don’t need to be clowns as they all have not-quite-blameless romantic agendas of their own which have brought them down for the weekend so having them all play innocent is quite misleading. I don’t even want to talk about what Simon Shepherd was doing as novelist Mr Bliss, I still can’t work it out and whatever it was he shouldn’t have been doing it at all.

The design is lovely, a large 1920s country house with staircase and landing to give Director Lindsay Posner some variety in staging. Nice as it is, it felt more Agatha Christie manor than bohemian retreat, not quite dishevelled or untidy enough for a family with only one maid / housekeeper / cook and not the slightest concern for social norms. It would have been useful to see something a little more disorderly to match their character, and it just added to the ‘not quite right’ feel of this production. As I say it wasn’t awful, the second and third acts are considerably better than the first and there is some good acting to enjoy. It all just lacks that joy of the Coward farce as events begin to build to their calamitous conclusion.

If you want to see it, then Last Minute has tickets from £10 for the Upper Circle which is very good value for this revival. My seat was upgraded to the stalls on the night so I ended up sitting in a seat worth more than five times as much. A useful tip is to buy balcony tickets for previews because unless it’s a juggernaut show with some major film star you quite often get upgraded to fill the seats lower down, especially for matinees. Once the press reviews are out, you’ll be lucky to get a seat at all never mind a bad one. If the reviews have been mediocre, as is the case here, then just look out for deals and you can end up in a fantastic seat for a fraction of the price. This version of Hay Fever is ok but doesn’t crackle as it should. But please, a message to directors and producers, let’s leave Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit alone for a while. In my Christmas post I asked for David Tennant to have a go at Present Laughter and Noel Coward wrote a ton of other plays so give us all a break and revive one of them instead.

Hay Fever is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 1 August. Tickets are available from £10 on Last Minute or from £20-£80 from ATG, but please please don’t pay £80 for this! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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