REVIEW: Noël Coward’s Christmas Spirits, St James Studio ✭✭✭

Charlotte Wakefield, Stefan Bednarczyk and Issy Van Randwyck. Photo: Mark Douet
Charlotte Wakefield, Stefan Bednarczyk and Issy Van Randwyck. Photo: Mark Douet

Noël Coward’s Christmas Spirits
St James Studio
10 December 2014
3 Stars

Noël Coward was born a year after Irving Berlin but Berlin, in life and in almost every other way, has outlived him. This is made startlingly clear when Berlin’s tunes are pitted against Coward’s, for even though Coward was a genius, Berlin was ahead of him in the music and lyrics game. London Pride is no match for I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas.

But the thing about Noël Coward is that the whole is far greater than the individual skills he possessed. There is something ineffable, intangible and utterly irresistible about Noël Coward: something almost magical. There has never been another like him; a quintessentially British one-off who achieved fame and adultation worldwide. Totally understandably. He was a master of wit, style and comic candour.

In the programme for Noël Coward’s Christmas Crackers, now playing at the St James Studio, writer and director Nick Hutchinson says:

I turned to Noël Coward and the Blitz because it seemed to suit the atmosphere of the St James’ Studio, but also because it is our most recent touchstone of the resilience of the Christmas spirit, and the indomitability of our desire to celebrate it despite austerity and fear. Churchill’s exhortation that Coward should sing while the guns are firing seems to me a perfect metaphor for our celebrations: there is nothing mawkish nor sentimental in a desire, shown by those soldiers in the trenches in the Great War, that for one day in the year at least, we should laugh, sing and celebrate what binds us, not what separates us.

Hutchinson has produced an unusual Christmas confection: part song, part recitation, part reminiscence and part cheeky indulgence. Using material ranging from Coward’s own diaries and writings, through Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas and Ben Johnson to reportage and obscure/familiar (depending on your education) literary works and sprinkled with well known, popular songs, the result is a true alternative to the usual seasonal pantomime fare.

The backdrop of the Blitz (nice work from Annie Gosney) establishes a sombre mood, perfect, one sadly admits, for these times of an almost rabid obsession with austerity. Hutchinson relies upon the strength of the material and the abilities of the three performers to ensure that the tone lifts from despondency.

The material has great charm and it is a clever idea to imagine what Noël Coward’s thoughts and concerns at Christmas might have been. Cleverer still is the notion of using characters from Blithe Spirit, and snatches of dialogue from that great farce, as a device to inspire Coward to get into the spirit of things. (You see what I did there? Hutchinson did it first)

As an idea, it is quite inspired. In actual execution, however, it does not quite ascend to the lofty heights it might. Partly this is because of the “Berlin” factor: the most accessible material here is not actually that written by Coward. This is not to say that including that material is a mistake, it’s not, but it is not necessarily what you expect in a show with the title this one has and including those tunes (including popular Christmas carols and the glorious Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas) somehow breaks the spell of the Noël Coward cocoon.

More profitable, perhaps, would have been to stick to Coward’s music and that of his British contemporaries, such as Ivor Novello: when Keep The Home Fires Burning appears it seems a natural seque.

Hutchinson could afford to be more daring with the assembled material: some of the recitations or reminiscences might have had greater effect if juxtaposed with snatches of song. Alternating spoken word with separate song can become a little stifling; the odd combination can be startlingly effective. Especially where, as here, the presentation is static, depending entirely on the skill of the performers to bring energy and variety to the piece.

Hutchinson’s trump card here is the delightful and truly talented Charlotte Wakefield. Charming and beautiful, and blessed with a voice that is shimmering perfection, Wakefield adds lustre to everything she does here. Her version of Keep The Home Fires Burning is the highlight of the evening. She excels, too, in the recitations, showing a natural gift for spellbinding storytelling. She sings so well that it is surprising, and a little frustrating, that she did not get to sing the Act One finale, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

That honour, however, here goes to Issy Van Randwyck who is not vocally up to that challenge. Van Randwyck makes a wet Madame Arcati and there is a forced geniality to her work here which dilutes the simple effectiveness of the material. Still, she certainly pursues the path she sets for herself zealously, and one admires that. She is at her best in the duets and trios where the burden of holding attention is shared with her fellow performers.

The hardest task falls to Stefan Bednarczyk who shoulders the dual responsibility of playing Noël Coward and being the accompanist for the evening. Playing Coward is a truly difficult task and Bednarczyk opts for suggestion rather than imitation. This is entirely understandable but it does represent the easy option and the one most likely to disappoint the audience.

Still, although not as dextrous, charming or sparkling as Coward himself, Bednarczyk does summon up a real sense of his style, attitude and air. It was difficult not to wish that the empty martini glasses on the stage were put to good use by his Coward here; there is an absence of decadent frivolity which might have been welcome.

The section where Bednarczyk played Scrooge from A Christmas Carol was excellent, as were many of the Coward recitations. And he showed a real rapport with Coward’s own music and lyrics, London Pride and Don’t Lets Be Beastly To The Germans being particular treats.

It’s a bit long and bit too worthy in parts, but Hutchinson’s idea here is a good one. Slightly more pace, slightly less self-indulgence from Ms Van Randwyck and a greater emphasis on Coward’s own music would have made this Yuletide treat more figgy pudding than mince pie; a greater source of contentment.

It’s not for children this play – it relies too much on the audience’s personal recollections and experiences, together with more than a passing knowledge of Blithe Spirit. But for those with a nostalgic bent, a couple of hours to spend and a penchant for “the old days” this is a safe bet.

Noël Coward’s Christmas Spirits runs at the St James Theatre studio until 23rd December.
Book tickets from The St James Theatre

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