Review – Dear Evan Hansen, Noel Coward Theatre, London, 30th December 2021

Dear Evan HansenWe’d originally planned to see this as part of my big birthday celebrations in April 2020 – but guess why it had to be cancelled…?! Anyway what’s a 20-month wait between friends? #Youwillbefound says the ubiquitous hashtag, which erroneously had led me to believe that this show was to do with finding (or not finding) a missing person, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

Connor and EvanIn fact, I’m really glad that I didn’t know the story of the show until I saw it, because that’s its most fascinating and rewarding aspect by far. And if you haven’t seen it yet and are planning to go, may I suggest you skip the rest of this paragraph and the next. You’ll thank me in the long run! Evan Hansen is an extremely anxious and nervous 17 year old, with a hard-working but frequently absent one-parent mum. His therapist has recommended he write himself regular letters, telling himself how today has been good or I did this well or I had fun doing this, etc. Unfortunately, when he prints off one of these Dear Evan Hansen letters at school, the printed copy is taken, read and kept by school bully and drug addict Connor Murphy. Connor teases and torments him about what he might do with the letter, particularly as Evan has referred to Connor’s sister Zoe as a potential love interest.

Evan and HeidiConnor doesn’t come into school for a few days, whilst Evan is left to fret about it. Then comes the bombshell – Connor has taken his own life, and signed the Dear Evan Hansen letter as though it were his suicide note. Connor’s parents now think that Evan was a good friend to Connor and want to know more about their friendship – and Evan can’t bring himself to tell them the truth as it would be so hurtful. As a result an entire myth is created at school and online about how great a guy Connor was – there’s even a memorial fund set up in his name, and Evan’s videos about Connor go viral. But will the truth ever come out, that this is all a lie and that Connor was cruel and unliked, and that Evan is a fantasist? And what will Zoe think? You’ll have to see the show to find out!

Dear Evan Hansen castAnd if you’ve jumped the last two paragraphs, welcome back. Suffice to say, it’s a creative and highly inventive story that sets up some fascinating moral dilemmas – although I can’t help but think there should be trigger warnings a-plenty! Most of the characters are essentially good people with their hearts in the right place, and even those that aren’t have some redeeming features. The trouble is, the characters overstep the mark. Evan himself can’t put an end to spinning his stories of a good relationship with Connor, because that would be cruel to his parents. Family friend Jared likes the fact that Evan relies on him for computer/Internet security support, and milks that reliance for all it’s worth. Alana, who sets herself up as the Co-President of the Foundation, becomes more and more power hungry as she sidelines everyone else involved so that in the end she wants to take all the glory. Even Connor’s parents step in to assume a quasi-parental responsibility for Evan, much to the suppressed fury of Evan’s real mother, as revealed in a delightfully cringey dinner party scene that gives you goosebumps with awkwardness.

Amazing setThe combined scenic and projection design by David Korins and Peter Nigrini is incredibly effective and stuns you with its attention to social media detail, as it bombards you with Twitter feeds and status updates. The interaction between the projections and what the characters on stage are seeing or writing on their screens works extremely well. I was, perhaps, a little surprised to see Microsoft Word on the projections in a relatively early incarnation – it’s pretty obvious that Evan Hansen hasn’t upgraded to Windows 10 yet. Matt Smith’s band plays Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score with attitude and pizzazz, and although I didn’t find the songs particularly memorable, I thought the arrangements were tremendous.

DEH castI was very much looking forward to seeing Sam Tutty in the leading role as I had heard such good things about him, so was a tiny bit disappointed to find that Evan Hansen was played by the alternate Evan, Marcus Harman, in his professional stage debut. I shouldn’t have worried; his performance is terrific. Expressing the character’s nervousness and anxiety to perfection, he commands the stage with an immensely likeable presence and is definitely a name to watch for in the future. Also on her West End debut, Iona Fraser is brilliant as the pushy Alana, a superb study of someone who allows success and attention to go to her head, so that what originally was an endearing character becomes a big-headed nightmare.

On yet another West End debut, in the role of Zoe we saw understudy Samantha Mbolekwa, who was excellent showing the transition from difficult, sulky, bereaved teenager to the warmer, more mature Zoe who allows Evan into her affections. It’s a sensitive and endearing performance. And Rebecca McKinnis is great as Evan’s mother Heidi, trying to juggle all the different elements of her life in order to keep a roof over their heads. But everyone gave a great performance, and the audience gave it a massive reception.

Evan and the MurphysHowever… such a fascinating set-up might inevitably lead to an anti-climactic ending, and for me I was disappointed with how the story turned out; too easy, and too unrealistically charitable. The show is a little overlong and gets bogged down with a lot of schmaltz and self-indulgence. It appealed very much to me on a cerebral level, but I missed out on the emotional attachment to the show in which clearly almost everyone else in the packed audience was revelling. Somewhere along the line I found myself unable to buy into the story’s conclusion – so whilst I really enjoyed the production and the performances, I just couldn’t accept the ending. Hey ho, it’s probably me. I’m sure the show will continue for a very long time to come!

Production photos by Matthew Murphy

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Present Laughter, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th July 2016

Present LaughterA last minute change of plan meant that I was able to make a sneaky booking for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to see this touring production of Present Laughter, which I’d had my eye on for a few months but couldn’t see how to schedule it in. I’m extremely glad we did, because it’s an elegant, classy, sophisticated and intelligent production of a play that neither of us had seen before. I read a number of Coward’s plays when I was about 15 years old, and this was one of them; and I remember at the time that it really didn’t jump off the page for me. I could see how it was an account of the trials and tribulations that beset light-comedy-actor Garry Essendine, but, unlike all the other Coward plays I read at the time, I found it heavy-going. So I was very interested to see how a decent production would make it come to life.

Joanna and GarryI don’t think there was ever any pretence, since the play first hit the boards in 1943, that its protagonist Garry Essendine is Noel Coward. He wrote it as a semi-autobiographical frippery purely to give himself a star role. Many of the other characters are based on members of his “set” (makes him sound like a badger), and Essendine’s constant inclination to overact or underempathise reflects Coward’s own intolerance and impatience with his celebrity status, which you sense drove him mad with its interminable impingement on his freedom but without which he would have been bereft.

MonicaIn brief, over the course of a few days, the actor is at the centre of a (largely self-induced) whirlwind of activity that includes two women throwing themselves at him, coping with the relationship indiscretions of his closest friends, beating off the advances of a young playwright hopelessly obsessed with him, and facing the no-nonsense discipline of his secretary and his ex-wife, all whilst he’s preparing to take a company of actors on a tour of Africa. At times it’s quite gentle comedy, at others almost Feydeau-esque in its farcical deceptions.

GarryAll the essential requirements of an impeccable Coward production are here. Simon Higlett’s graceful set comfortably accommodates all the exit and entry points needed for the farcical elements, whilst reflecting Essendine’s immaculate taste in all the furnishings and accoutrements of fine living. The costumes are beautiful; indeed, I rather hankered after the smart dressing gown that Liz bought Essendine in Paris. A proper piano; very comme il faut. The spiral staircase direct to Essendine’s boudoir adds a touch of extravagance. When can we move in?

Garry and DaphneStephen Unwin directs his hugely enjoyable cast at a smart pace, encouraging everyone to get meaningful characterisation out of even the minor parts, thus providing a superb backbone to support the main characters. For example, Martin Hancock as Fred, the valet, is brilliant at bringing out all his egalitarian cheeriness, naturally offering his rightyo’s and be good’s to everyone in his orbit, no matter their estate. Sally Tatum brings the house down with her self-contortions and Scandinavian impishness as the psychic housekeeper Miss Erikson, as does Patrick Walshe McBride with his slightly unhinged, slightly menacing interpretation of the appalling Roland Maule; two roles that could so easily descend into mere caricature, but here performed with perfect judgment to present real people out of these nightmare creations. Toby Longworth’s Henry is a delightfully blustering idiot who loses his cool magnificently when he thinks Essendine is having an affair with his wife; Jason Morell is hilarious with his over-reactions to… well, to anything; and Elizabeth Holland brings some splendid dignity to her don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington moment.

LizAt the heart of the production is an immaculate performance by Samuel West as Garry Essendine. As with some of the smaller roles, it could be easy to go over-the-top and caricaturise Essendine as a merely waspish spoilt brat and arch manipulator. But Mr West digs deeper into the character and reveals someone with whom you can actually have a lot of sympathy; he presents Essendine’s weaknesses with a hint of affection, so that, although he certainly isn’t more sinned against than sinning, the dividing line between the two isn’t quite so clear as you might think it is. Essendine’s characteristic switching between (in)sincerity and acting is intelligently but mischievously handled by Mr West so that it’s hardly surprising that Daphne hilariously misinterprets his intentions; an excellent performance.

HenryDaisy Boulton’s Daphne is wide-eyed and toe-curlingly in love with Garry and is wonderfully easy fodder to his patter and pretence. Rebecca Johnson is first rate as his wife/ex-wife (you choose) Liz, with a fine blend of hard-nosed toughness to keep Garry out of trouble and an indulgent forgiveness of his misconduct. Zoe Boyle gives a great performance as the bed-hopping Joanna, allowing the mask of steely self-assurance to drop perfectly when she’s cornered; and there’s a wonderful performance by Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s much put-upon secretary Monica, protecting him from the worst excesses of his own behaviour with all the warmth and understanding of a senior Matron who’s seen it all and didn’t like much of what she saw.

Garry againImpeccably performed throughout, the play still has insightful observations to make about the nature of celebrity, loyalty and pretence versus reality. It’s not Coward at his most searing, but it still has great entertainment value and we both really enjoyed it! This Theatre Royal Bath production continues to tour to Cambridge, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 20th August. Go see it!

Production photos by Nobby Clark.

Review – Relative Values, Harold Pinter Theatre, 14th June 2014

Relative ValuesI’ve seen some great Coward, I’ve seen some iffy Coward, but for the most part you can rely on him to provide you with a sophisticated comedy of manners, probably involving at least one maid, some aristocrats and an outsider to shake things up. His most renowned comedies are from the 20s to the 40s, and as he got older I think it’s fair to say that on the whole the quality went down – at least, that’s what my experience of Volcano tells me. Relative Values, however, is from 1951, when he still definitely had “it”, whatever “it” was.

Patricia HodgeEven though it had been six years since World War Two had ended, it was a time of austerity. There was still meat and sugar rationing; we think times are hard now – it must have been very much worse for that generation. “Things were changing” too, generally speaking. Five years after Relative Values, John Osborne gave us angry young Jimmy Porter as a reaction against the drawing room comedies of Coward and Rattigan. But actually – Relative Values is a forward-looking play for its time and has its finger on the pulse of the changing society. Countess Felicity is best friends with her lady’s maid and looks on her butler as a senior member of the family. Certainly, there are still reactionary stick-in-the-muds, as represented by Admiral and Lady Cynthia Hayling, Caroline Quentinbut the young Earl Nigel is moving with the times sufficiently to want to marry someone whose celebrity status derives from films and glossy magazines rather than country estates with horses and hounds. The traditional statuses of aristocrat and servant are further confounded by the realisation that, if Nigel and Miranda marry, the new Countess will be the sister of the present Countess’ lady’s maid. Still, noblesse oblige, and all that, and the only person to whom this is an insuperable problem is the maid herself. Cue for some fantastic comedy that blurs the lines between the classes and has the maid pretending to be an old family friend/companion – and that’s actually way funnier than it sounds.

Neil MorrisseyThis is a production from the Theatre Royal Bath (don’t they do some good stuff) that first saw light of day last year but only transferred to London for a brief run this spring. It’s the kind of play and production that sits so elegantly and beautifully in a West End theatre, a space it occupies as to the manor born. Looking at the photo in my French’s Acting Edition, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has very accurately revived the original 1951 set, and all the costumes are suitably functional or sumptuous, depending on which character we’re talking about. Director Trevor NunnSteven Pacey has interspersed the different scenes with mock Pathé newsreels showing 1951 in the raw – some of the footage is real, but I recognised the narrator as Rory Bremner, who played Crestwell the butler until a few weeks ago. This all helps to contextualise the play to its time whilst still being eminently 21st century as it features members of the cast in its black and white clips. We’re not allowed to have two intervals anymore, so this classic three act play is broken up halfway through the second act, which is a slight shame as it not only reduces the impact of the tremendous line with which Coward ended Act One and which got a spontaneous round of applause, but also introduces the interval with much less of a cliffhanger.

Leigh ZimmermanNevertheless, it’s a fantastically entertaining show, with some absolutely superb performances. Patricia Hodge plays the Countess and she’s every bit as splendid as you could imagine. Cut glass accent with a sneaky touch of warmth to it, decorous eyes that have seen it all but are far too polite to react to indecorous behaviour, and unsurpassable comic timing all make for a memorable performance. Her maid and best friend Moxie is played by Caroline Quentin, who is fantastic as the no-nonsense but heart of gold servant – loyal, traditional but never servile; and whose conversation, when she’s upgraded to companion, is a stroke of comic genius. Her transformation from drudge to socialite is devastatingly hilarious. She brings the house down as she blisteringly patronises Lady Cynthia – one of the funniest moments I can remember in a play for a long time.

Ben MansfieldYou need a really good cast to balance the rest of the play when you’ve got two such superb performers acting their socks off, and, delightfully, that is exactly what we have. I’ve not seen Neil Morrissey live before but I’d forgotten what an excellent comedy actor he is – all those Men Behaving Badly days shared with Caroline Quentin seem an awfully long time ago, but they still have a terrific rapport together, and you can see he’s really enjoying himself too, which encourages the audience to do so too. Steven Pacey, superb in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt a couple of years ago, has a fantastic mischievous twinkle in his eye as Countess Felicity’s nephew Peter, revelling in the hilarity of all the scrapes they get themselves into, and belly-achingly funny when he has his sexuality challenged by sudden proximity to the hunky leading man, staying just on theSam Hoare right side of cliché to maximise the humour. Leigh Zimmerman is perfect for the role of film star Miranda Frayle, stunningly tall and elegant, disdainfully making up stories about the poverty of her childhood, much to Moxie’s disgust – another example of the somewhat skewed look at class that Coward creates in this play. When she meets up again with old flame Don Lucas, dashingly played by Ben Mansfield, and Lady Felicity catches them “at it”, it’s only a matter of time before she’s a lamb to the slaughter and no mistake. There’s also excellent support from Amanda Boxer whose Lady Cynthia is as crusty as a vintage port, and Timothy Kightley, an excellent old stick of a retired admiral, who never quite knows when to shut up. Sam Hoare’s Earl Nigel is a chinless dimwit manipulated by every woman he meets, and Rebecca Birch is a nicely irreverent housemaid in the best Coward tradition.

The play and production delivered so much more than I was expecting of it. Mrs Chrisparkle and I absolutely loved it, and I’m so glad we snuck in to see it just before it closes next week. If you can get yourself down to the Harold Pinter Theatre (that’s the Comedy Theatre in old money) before Saturday 21st June, you won’t regret it.

Review – Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre, 19th April 2014

Blithe Spirit 1970I can still remember the excitement felt by the ten-year-old me going to see Blithe Spirit in the very self-same Shaftesbury Avenue theatre in 1970 (it were called the Globe when I were a lad). Patrick Cargill as Charles Condomine (I used to love “Father, Dear Father”), Ursula Howells as Ruth (she played Patrick Cargill’s ex-wife in that sitcom) and Beryl Reid, would you believe, as Madame Arcati. God I felt grown-up. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have a memory that we saw another production in the not too distant past, maybe at the Wycombe Swan, but I can’t find the programme, and all other details about the show escape me. I have a feeling it wasn’t that great.

Blithe Spirit 2014It is an extremely funny play though. I’m sure you know the premise – Charles and Ruth Condomine host a séance with their friends the Bradmans; and it’s all run by the medium Madame Arcati, going into hokey trances to connect with the “other side”. Unfortunately for Charles, she’s a bit too successful and brings back Charles’ first wife, the late Elvira, as a ghostly apparition that only he (and we) can see. Elvira’s quite a handful and Ruth doesn’t appreciate being sidelined, as Charles spends a bit too much time catching up with his dead missus. Things come to a head as Elvira gets more and more jealous, and mischievous, with rather bizarre consequences. In the end, Charles’ life comes crashing down upon him. Literally.

SeanceMichael Blakemore directs with a nice sense of fun and ease, getting the best out of his talented cast. Janie Dee (always a favourite) is a fantastic Ruth, elegant and charming at first, but also delightfully furious at Charles’ behaviour and then perplexed at trying to understand exactly what’s going on with her barmy husband and his pre-enamorata. Jemima Rooper is a very mischievous and cheeky Elvira, who successfully conveys the sense of a girlish, immature wife taken from her husband too soon – although I thought she could have been a bit more petulant at times. Charles Edwards plays Condomine as an avuncular fellow, who rather enjoys the continuation of his present and past relationships more than is good for him. I have a recollection that Patrick Cargill was a far more exasperated Condomine – by comparison, Mr Edwards is rather Zen in accepting his lot. There’s some excellent support from Serena Evans as the tactless Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones as her respectable Doctor husband, and Patsy Ferran as the breakneck-speed Edith, one of Noel Coward’s hallmark comedy maids.

Angela LansburyOf course in 1941, this was structured as a classic three act play, but nowadays we’re not allowed to linger in a theatre that long any more. So the sole interval comes after the original Act Two Scene One. On the plus side, I rather liked the stage projections that explained the time and place for each scene; however I did also feel that many of the scenes ended rather suddenly, without a real visual or verbal punchline. Whether the “curtain down” wasn’t snappy enough, or if Coward got it wrong, I’m not sure.

Madame Arcati mayhemBut, make no mistake, there’s only one reason why the best part of 1000 people have crammed into the Gielgud Theatre for eight performances a week – and that’s the appearance of Dame Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. It’s been 40 years (apparently) since she was last on the London stage, so she’s definitely overdue a visit. Whether you think of her as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as the over-the-top Mrs Otterbourne in the film of Death on the Nile, as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or (like me) Miss Price singing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she’s bound to have a place somewhere in your heart.

Janie DeeAt the age of 88 (according to Wikipedia) she is in incredible form. Her Madame Arcati is every bit as loopy as Coward intended, daftly bouncing around the stage as she communes with Daphne her control, crashing to the sofa in the warm up to her trances, jangling in her Boho beads and generally running highly eccentrically amok. She is the epitome of the stagey, ham character that makes the Condomines and the Bradmans mock her behind her back. She does a very nice line in withering looks, especially when Mrs Bradman is being particularly dim and inappropriate; and she also chews on her words in that thoughtful way that makes her face frown with concentration – an homage, maybe, to the original Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford, with whom I always associate that particular oral tic.

Dr and Mrs BradmanGiven the resounding round of applause on her first entry, and the appreciative rounds of applause when she leaves the stage, never has there been a less surprising standing ovation at curtain call than for Dame Angela. I reckon we’d have all stood up even if she’d been lousy – but the fact that she was excellent made it all the more rewarding.

Patsy FerranThe result is a very enjoyable theatrical experience where you can both enjoy a good production of a very funny old play, and also share in the magic of witnessing Dame Angela before your very eyes, still at it. I doubt if there are many tickets still available – but if you get to see this, you’re in for a treat.

Review – Fallen Angels, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th February 2014

Fallen AngelsWay back in the spring of 1980, dazzled with success at having directed a superb student production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (a new translation no less) my friend Sue wanted to direct a summer production of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. I’d really enjoyed doing the Stage Management on Salome and I’d have been happy to have continued to refine that skill on Fallen Angels; but instead Sue insisted that she wanted me to play Willy. Gentle reader, I am no actor. We had some rehearsals and we struggled along, but in the end it all came to nothing. To this day I maintain that we could have been awesome except that we had the funding withdrawn; but really it was because we were useless.

Jenny SeagroveAnyway, as a result, I’d always been keen to see a proper production of Fallen Angels, but they don’t seem to come round very often. The last Coward revival we saw, Volcano, was a terrible disappointment. However, out of the ashes of that lamentable lava, a couple of years on, here’s a revival of Fallen Angels directed by Roy Marsden (who directed Volcano), starring Jenny Seagrove (who starred in Volcano) and featuring Robin Sebastian (who featured in Volcano). I guess they must all be friends. I was concerned when I realised the extent of the extinct Volcano in this production, but I needn’t have worried. Whereas we thought Volcano was pretty awful, Fallen Angels is absolutely magic.

Sara CroweIt’s a simple tale of two friends who have both been married for some time to their respective and respectable boring husbands, who love them for sure but the spark has definitely gone out of the relationships over the years. The prospect of renewed excitement comes when they hear from the mysterious Maurice, with whom both ladies were amorously occupied in the earlier flushes of their youth. Overcome with passion they fantasise about him; then they decide they can’t possibly meet him as it would jeopardise their marriages; then they decide they don’t really care about their marriages much anyway; and then they end up waiting for his arrival so long that they get dead drunk. Finally Maurice arrives (bad timing) when the husbands are back from the golf trip – so how are the wives going to extricate themselves from that mess? Considering Coward was still in his early twenties when he wrote this play, it shows very insightful understanding about relationships between partners and friends, both in and out of wedlock. All in all, it’s a delightful piece of writing.

Tim WallersPaul Farnsworth’s design has great feeling for the period with terrific costumes and a refined set, all with an excellent attention to detail. Jenny Seagrove’s Julia is a classy lady with natural quiet authority and 1920s chain-smoking sophistication. She exudes comfort and middle-class boredom with every languorous pose on the chaise-longue, and it’s a delight to watch her attempt to retain dignity as she loses her grip on her friendships and her sobriety. But the absolute highlight of the play is the sensationally funny performance by Sara Crowe as Jane, seething with pent-up frustration, getting bitchier as she gets progressively more inebriated; and you’ve never seen anyone get more of a sexual frisson out of remembering how attractive someone’s teeth were.

Robin SebastianThe second act is an incredible tour de force from both performers, as they grapple with the stresses of awaiting Maurice’s arrival, taking too much Dutch Courage on an empty stomach, indulging in highly competitive one-upwomanship, degenerating into verbal catfights, hurtling over the settee like horses at a gymkhana and engaging in some very silly shenanigans involving a pineapple. With its expertly timed and performed physical comedy it reminded me in part of the second act of Noises Off. It’s a wonderfully memorable and funny scene.

Gillian McCaffertyAdded to all that there are excellent supporting performances by Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian as the rather pompous and easily fooled Fred and Willy, and Philip Battley as the cosmopolitan but slimy Maurice; you could almost smell the stereotypical garlic. There’s a great scene where Maurice greets Fred by kissing him on both cheeks, and Mr Wallers’ utterly horrified reaction is completely hilarious; a simple comic device, but it works brilliantly. Finally there’s a superb comic performance by Gillian McCafferty as the know-it-all maid Saunders, who can play the piano better than her mistress, understands the intricacies of golf clubs better than her master, knows perfect French, and who’s been there and done that with all sort of subtle superiority over everyone else in her orbit. Coward really knew how to write an off-the-wall maid, and this is one of the best.

Philip BattleyThe whole production is a comic triumph and left the very full audience at the Royal helpless with laughter. It’s touring till the end of March and I can absolutely recommend it not only as a really funny evening out, but also as a splendid example of how what might be regarded as a dated drawing-room comedy can still have relevance and pack a magic punch.

PS From our seats in Row C of the stalls, I’ve never felt such a rush of cold air into the auditorium as when the curtain went up at the beginning of the play. The cast must have been absolutely perishing!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd November 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamOur fourth visit to the Noel Coward theatre in the space of a year and the fourth different production of Midsummer Night’s Dream we’ve seen in the past few years. It’s another triumph as far as the Michael Grandage season is concerned, as it’s a dream of a “Dream”, played for merriment and pleasure to a packed house by a talented and committed cast who have a whale of a time doing it. The more I see this play, the more I enjoy it, especially its high jinks scenes of mistaken love between the four young lovers, but I also really enjoy the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom, and the rehearsal scenes by Quince and his crew, culminating in their final performance of the notable tragi-comedy “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Gifted actors and directors can create splendid comedy out of these scenes and that’s certainly what Michael Grandage has achieved with this production.

 Padraic DelaneyBut I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d guess from the way that the Athenian Court is dressed in the opening scene that we’re somewhere in the early 20th century – smart, stylish but not overly vivacious in appearance. Fairyland, on the other hand, is like the set from “Hair”, with its inhabitants in a perpetual stage of inner peace and hallucination brought on by their wacky baccy. With this play, the more up-to-date the setting, the more you feel you can relate to the characters, which in turn sharpens the humour. However, none of this really matters, because the essence of the story is timeless; as Jenny Wren sings in “Barnum”, “love makes such fools of us all”.

Sheridan SmithPadraic Delaney and Sheridan Smith make a very mild mannered, democratic almost, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. Mr Delaney (an excellent Babbybobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the previous Grandage play at this theatre) listens fairly and tries to be constructive in determining Egeus’ complaint about his daughter Hermia’s intransigency in whom she will agree to marry; Miss Smith meanwhile politely takes a backseat and won’t dream of interfering in matters of state; but both giggle like naughty young lovers when they think no one is watching. As Oberon, Mr Delaney is a very mischievous king of the fairies, not as angry as sometimes he is portrayed; and Miss Smith is an enchanting Titania, extremely laid back and content with the company of her pot-fuelled posse.Gavin Fowler There’s almost something of Edwin Drood’s Princess Puffer to her characterisation. It’s no secret; I am a little bit in love with Sheridan Smith (who isn’t?), and it only takes a certain smile to get your toes tingling. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is a cheeky chap – he and Oberon make a right pair of lads in their “love-in-idleness” “let’s anoint everyone’s eyes with love potion” games. He’s not really how I would imagine a merry wanderer of the night to look – he’s more the kind of guy you’d share a few pints down the pub with. But it works as a partnership. Leo Wringer brings just the right level of proper decency mixed with a touch of savage spite in his brief appearances as Egeus.

Leo WringerI always love the bickering and romantic and/or sexual confusion between Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and this winsome foursome are no different. Susannah Fielding’s Hermia is rather precious and spoilt, and with a hilariously surprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight; Katherine Kingsley’s Helena is delightfully furious at how she is treated by the others whether they appear to be in love with her or not, and has an unsurprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight. There’s not a lot of character difference between Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander (a sensitive Cartwright in Privates on Parade, the first play in this season) and Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius (whose versatility brought alive several minor roles in Peter and Alice, the second) – they even wear the same Athenian standard issue underpants. Nevertheless, all four turn in exceptional comic performances, and their lengthy scenes in the forest are stuffed full of physical comedy that must be choreographed precisely within an inch of its life for it to look so slick.

Hermia and LysanderAnd then, of course, there are the rude mechanicals. Confession time: I am not a particular fan of David Walliams; that’s not to say I don’t like him but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have managed largely to avoid Little Britain and his other TV comedy roles. However, I have to say, his Bottom is officially fabulous. Very camp, he plays him as the forest’s biggest luvvie and it works a treat. The whole performance is crammed with comedy gesture that is never quite over-the-top and would be completely appropriate to an old acting ham like Bottom. Whether it’s constantly running his hand over Flute’s face, taking odd words and giving them a life of their own (“some man or other must present WALL!”), eyeing up his colleagues in a not entirely platonic manner whilst they’re not looking, or encouraging some enforced Helena and Demetrius(let’s not beat about the bush) fellatio in Pyramus’ elongated death scene, his performance is a total joy from start to finish. As Miss Smith is diminutive, Mr Walliams is tall and imposing – visually, they make a very nice comedy juxtaposition. Richard Dempsey has an effective line in intellectual geek in his portrayal of Peter Quince, and the other mechanicals all make the best of their traditional dimwit characters and acting performances. I make a very appreciative mention of Jack Brown, the understudy appearing in the role of Flute, who made an almost attractive Thisbe and brought the house down with the sheer stupidity of his final scene – great stuff.

David WalliamsAll the Grandage season plays have been absolutely top-notch so far and this is no exception. Unashamedly funny all the way through; I can’t recommend it too highly. We haven’t booked to see Jude Law in Henry V – but I do hope that Mr Grandage puts together another similar season in the near future.

Review – Volcano, Oxford Playhouse, 17th July 2012

VolcanoAn undiscovered Noël Coward play? Sounds intriguing and delightful. Will it have the sparkling wit of Private Lives? The horseplay of Hay Fever? The high comedy of Blithe Spirit? Those plays were written when Coward was still a gay young thing, and when he could see every aspect of human life through bright and risqué eyes whilst still reflecting the truth about society. But Volcano – unperformed in Coward’s lifetime – was written in 1956 when the gay young thing had become a gay older thing and, perhaps with a nod to the tough lives being portrayed in the contemporary plays of Osborne and Wesker, this is a much more serious play.

And, for me, that’s its problem from the start. I don’t think Coward does serious very well, unless it’s of the patriotic “In Which We Serve” or “This Happy Breed” kind. This is a play full of downbeat and dismal relationships. Adela was happily married but now widowed, and takes the view that happiness is past and can never return again. Guy is serially unfaithful to Melissa, whose coping strategy is to employ her natural snappy toxicity. Ellen and Keith are on the rocks and will probably only stay together for the child’s sake. The only characters who seem to make a plucky go of their relationship are Grizelda and Robin, but Coward has relegated them to the sidelines as far as the real meat of the story goes. Overall, it’s extremely pessimistic about love and relationships.

Jenny SeagroveBut these are real problems – and according to the programme, based on the experiences of real people that Coward knew at his Jamaican hideaway – Ian & Mrs Fleming no less. So this ought to form a gritty account of relationship problems that you can really get your teeth into. Centre stage, and acting as a metaphor for a seething cauldron of emotions, is the volcano up against which Adela’s house is perched. Unfortunately, despite the potential intensity and depth of the characters’ situations, the play just doesn’t take off and the volcano is reduced to something of a molehill. It felt to me as though the text were just a first draft of something that could have developed into a more satisfying final product. By the second draft the plot would have had more intrigue and by the third he would have scattered it with bons mots and enhanced linguistic dexterity; but as it stands, it’s a bit like Norfolk – largely rather flat. That’s not to say there aren’t some good scenes, there are; Ellen’s two second-act confrontations with Melissa and Keith are full of surprises and very well played; and Melissa’s conversations throughout are spiky and acerbic. But I also felt that many of the speeches were written more like erudite prose than believable conversation. If the author had been alive I am sure there would have been subtle rewrites during rehearsals that would have made the whole thing flow better; not an option forty-odd years after his death, I realise.

Director Roy Marsden and designer Simon Scullion have gone for a very naturalistic presentation of the house and volcano. This means the representation of the volcanic eruptions, with the sound and lighting effects and subsequent destruction of part of the set, have to be very naturalistic and believable too; and with the best will in the world, it’s a big ask. Some minor pyros and flickering lights that dislodge at an angle of 30 degrees doesn’t quite suggest terrifying semi-devastation to me. The next morning after the eruption, Adela goes around cleaning up the garden and washing all the black soot off the chairs and tables – she refers to the dirt and dust a few times in her speeches – but you can see that her cleaning cloth is as free from lava residue post-wash as it was before. That also contributed to the lack of credibility of that big central stage effect. To be honest I think the whole thing would have worked better in a smaller space – somewhere like the Menier or the Sheffield Crucible Studio – with much less in the way of intricate stage design and demanding greater reliance on the audience’s imagination. That intimacy might also have made the character interaction more telling.

Jason DurrAdela is played by Jenny Seagrove, who I haven’t seen before on stage. She gives a good impression of a strong-minded and intelligent woman reining in her emotions, but vocally I found her delivery rather samey throughout; the tone she used to address Ellen when they were remembering good times and her tone of disappointed anger with her in the second half were pretty much identical, for example. In fact the only time she actually sounded enthusiastic was at curtain call when she was encouraging us to donate change to her new animal welfare charity on our way out of the auditorium; a gentle form of chugging that felt strangely inappropriate given the time and place.

Jason Durr as the licentious Guy subtly underplayed the role I thought – he could have been more over-the-top with his protestations of love and general spoiltness, but instead made the character more credible and realistic. No doubt this was the role that Coward would have played himself. As Melissa, his justifiably bitchy wife, Dawn Steele probably has the best lines in the play and she too could have played it more savagely and ostentatiously at the expense of credibility, so that was a very thoughtful interpretation I felt. The other members of the cast all gave good solid performances.

Dawn Steele But I’m afraid both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the whole thing rather boring. In fact I had to look sternly at Mrs C when she lightly suggested skipping the second half. It wasn’t that bad. Apparently Coward wanted Katharine Hepburn to play Adela – she turned it down, and I can see why. Gertrude Lawrence had died four years earlier; if he’d written the role of Melissa for Miss Lawrence the character would probably have been both more adorable and spiteful which might have made the play punchier. Regrettably, as it stands it lacks dramatic intensity and drive. Fascinating to see it, of course, to complete one’s knowledge of Coward’s oeuvres; but essentially disappointing.