Julian Eaves reviews Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 now playing at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.
Tonight at 8.30
Jermyn Street Theatre,
22nd April 2018
How lucky we are to get this cycle of nine one-act plays by Noel Coward (he wrote a tenth, but it isn’t included here) given to us by this indefatigable premier fringe venue, nestling in the very bosom of the West End, just off Piccadilly. This compendium of glimpses into the mid-1930’s is one of the rarest performed of the Master’s works, but infrequency of appearance is no indicator of its quality. Artistic Director, the youthful and immensely talented Tom Littler draws magic out of them a-plenty, with a superb cast and splendid production, all at a budget price. It’s quite a journey: a bit of a slow-build at first, but once it gets going, it’s unstoppable and delivers bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. You’d be mad to miss it. And on certain days, you can see all the plays in one go, which is a huge treat.
There are three bunches of three plays. Things kick off with what the producers here call, ‘Secret Hearts’, and this leads with ‘Star Chamber’ – the one play that is usually dropped from productions (in its place we get ‘Fumed Oak’). It’s a somewhat amusing curtain-raiser, if you relish exercises in theatrical bitchery, but it is made a little bit more interesting by the interpolation of cleverly written episodes of overlapping dialogue. If it’s more than that, then any greater substance escaped me. We have a strong cast here, but this play is not much more than a delightful warm-up for them. Oddly, though, it’s the one play where Boadicea Ricketts really gets enough to do: she’s a brilliant new talent at the start of her career and a super find as the vain, self-obsessed diva who is mistress of the devastating non-sequitur. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her in due course.
Next, ‘Red Peppers’ is a creakingly dated depiction of dodgy tenth-rate variety entertainers. Even Rosemary Ashe and Jeremy Rose (as Lily and George Pepper) cannot quite get the tone right in the pastiche music-hall numbers and catty backstage squabbling. Coward wrote this material as a vehicle for stars like himself and Gertrude Lawrence, when they were about the same age as the century itself; in the hands of much older performers, it gains in depth, becoming a portrait of disappointment and wasted lives, but the songs are full of spirit and gaiety and sit oddly in a more senior milieu.
The first ‘trilogy’ ends with perhaps the best known story of the group: ‘Still Life’ is the dramatic short story that became David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’, currently also on the stage around the corner in Haymarket at the Empire Cinema in Emma Rice’s radical re-working of the tale with Kneehigh. The comparison is interesting. Unlike here, Rice does anything but deliver the work ‘straight’, and the effect is immediately galvanising. By contrast, Miranda Foster and Nick Waring play Laura and Alec pretty much as the lines say they are, and we seem to be skimming across the surface of Coward’s world, never quite coming into contact with it.
And then something remarkable happens. Suddenly, in the midst of a conversation over their cups of tea at a table in the station cafe, we plunge into the very heart of their lives. Quite how it happens, it is hard to say, but all at once every word is brightly lit from within and everthing that they say matters incredibly much. The actors have clearly worked very carefully to get to this point, but from here on in it is not just this play but the whole event that shifts in direction and mood. Everything starts to fall into place. The magic of all the elements working together begins to happen. And it goes on happening, all the way through the remaining plays.
After the first long interval (there are just 15 minute pauses between the second and third plays in each set, and clever musical interludes between the first and second – Stefan Bednarczyk’s brilliant repartee is a delight here), the production never seems to put a foot wrong. The second group of plays (here called ‘Bedroom Farces’) begins with the almost surreal take on light comedy, ‘We Were Dancing’. Sara Crowe manages the dippy twists and turns of Louise’s part with the same aplomb and gusto we expect with Amanda and all of Coward’s really finest female leads; Ian Hallard is a super moon-faced foil to her as the parvenu Karl, while Waring is re-invented here as the outraged spouse, Hubert, with a George VI-like speech impediment, and Rosemary Ashe perfectly catches the right note as his termagant sister, Clara. This quartet’s scenes together, pitched battles of intellect and passion, are executed with Shavian control and energy, giving a stunning formal beauty to the barmy content.
Not least in clinching the effect of all this are: the delicious designs by Louie Whitemore (who fills the stage time and again with magnificent pictures of the period – and in this tiny subterranean space one can only wonder where they manage to store all the scenery); the gorgeous array of costumes (scores of them!) by the impossibly gifted Emily Stuart; and, the perfect lighting by Tim Mascall. Also, Tom Attwood masters the soundscape, fading us into and out of radio broadcasts, classical recitals, and ambient noises, increasing the epic sweep of the cycle.
If ‘We Were Dancing’ leaves you feeling that it alone is worth the price of the ticket – and it is – then even greater glories are to follow. ‘Ways and Means’ is another extraordinarily conceived and exquisitely realised arabesque of an idea, spun out of a divinely mischievous imagination; Foster and Waring play an entirely different sort of couple here, financially overstretched and driven to crime in the most melodramatically coincidental way, with another relative newcomer, Ben Waring, briefly shining as Stevens, the former chauffeur. In these plays, as elsewhere, Coward does allow himself to consider money as an external enemy to human peace: however, the wider historical background hardly gets a look in: there are the odd quips glancingly mentioning Mussolini or Hitler, but they are gone again as soon as they arrive. In plays so firmly rooted in the ‘reality’ of people’s lives, it is difficult to know what to make of that. With ‘the Thirties’ looked at from so many different angles here, it feels strange not to get more of a sense of society beyond the parlour doors.
Never mind. Then, in the incredible ‘Shadow Play’, we get another direct hit: operetta-like, Coward fuses dialogue and action in a way that conventional wisdom says did not happen until Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1943. But Coward’s musical-theatre dramaturgy is faultless. Pushing us out of the ‘real’ world and taking us into a fantasy episode decades ahead of the ‘dream ballets’ of the 40s and 50s, we anticipate ‘Lady in the Dark’ and even ‘Follies’ in a way that is simply dazzling and thrilling. (At least one contemporary maker of musicals speaks slightingly of Coward’s achievements, but I wonder whether he didn’t find more to like, and perhaps learn from, in his works than he cares to admit?)
For the start of the final round of plays (here called, ‘Nuclear Families’) we get the oddity: ‘Family Album’ – a peek into the bygone days of the 1860s. It opens with yet another coup: a ravishing tableau of a mid-Victorian family funeral scene, decked out in the most splendid, the most opulent mourning regalia. The dialogue is marvelously stilted, and Coward tops this by tilting it into some fine pastiche Gilbert & Sullivan numbers. Bewitching. The ‘intention’ of the play is still very much of a piece with the rest of the show, and it’s good to see Wiggins, as an outsider married into the household, getting more to do here.
The penultimate play, ‘Hands Across The Sea’, is not so much a swipe at the upper classes as a sustained mauling. He does not hold back. Ashe in particular gets her Belgravia battleaxe, the Hon. Clare Wedderburn, spot on, with fine collabration from Foster as the equally and wonderfully ghastly Lady Maureen Gilpin (‘Piggie’ to her friends), Bednarczyk is on peak form as the formidable Commander Peter Gilpin, RN, and Rose as his just as awful mate, Lieutenant Commander Alastair Corbett, RN, with Waring doing the same for Major Gosling. What a bunch. Into their bonkers establishment wander hapless middle class Mr and Mrs Wadhurst from Malaya (Hallard and Crowe), getting literally entangled in the smart set’s world.
But the closing work is perhaps the strangest. Like a muted Somerset Maugham story, it is a very sober and clear-headed examination of things going wrong. And then getting worse. There are few laughs. The air seems to clear and we are left looking at ourselves very searchingly indeed. For all the mirth, there is little amusing about life running off the rails, about not getting what you believe you want more deeply than anything. It is cool, detached, spare, and unsparing, and packs a sucker punch to knock us homeward with more thoughts in our heads than remembered jokes. Is this what life is about? Coward doesn’t dwell a moment longer than needed to make that thought land in our minds. And the rest, he seems to imply, us up to us, to go off and sort out for ourselves.
A remarkable package, one that will be the envy of many other theatres around the city, and country. Genius.
Plays at Jermyn Street Theatre Until 20 May 2018