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 – Travels with my Aunt, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7th May 2016

Travels with my AuntA spot of late Spring sunshine was just the perfect welcome as we arrived in Chichester for the first of this year’s two theatrical weekends Sussex-style. We were joined, in their inaugural visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, by Mrs Chrisparkle’s aunt and uncle, Professor and Mrs Plum. Naturally, we started with a swish lunch in the Minerva Brasserie – one simply just has to, you know. I’m delighted to say that both the brasserie and the bar and grill upstairs have had something of a facelift since we last visited and they both look fantastico.

Patricia HodgeTravels with my Aunt – which was our matinee treat – is of course originally a novel by Graham Greene, but we have seen a wonderful play adaptation at the Royal and Derngate back in 2010, and now there’s this new version, reincarnated as a musical, with book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The story consists of a huge amount of daftness – this is it in a nutshell: Henry Pulling is an old-before-his-time gentleman who has devoted his life to growing dahlias. Aunt Augusta is his septuagenarian aunt who acts half her age, was a prostitute in her youth and even today runs all around the world doing shady deals. She has a much younger lover – Wordsworth – from Sierra Leone, but is also selling everything to pay off the ransom for the true love of her life, Mr Visconti; and this is where she enlists Henry’s help. Henry travels with her, round Europe and South America, on the search for this mysterious man, unwillingly encountering adventures on the way. They find the human dynamo that is Visconti; and all this excitement eventually rubs off on Henry, who, much to his surprise, finds out that survival by illegal import/export trade based in Paraguay has more flair to it as a lifestyle than daily dahlia-tending.

Patricia Hodge and Steven PaceyAs you take your seats, Colin Falconer’s set beautifully recreates a 1969 railway station, complete with swanky lit destination signs just like they used to have at Baker St station (maybe they still do?), dingy waiting room, comfortless wooden benches, a ticket collector’s booth, and many other late 60s railway reminders. With a little movement and relighting, the waiting room turns into many other indoor scenes such as Augusta’s flat, a pub, and a compartment on the Orient Express. The costumes are perfect for that 1969 vibe, with Tooley wonderfully decked out as a pot-smoking hippie, the girls in the ensemble as bright blue stewardesses straight out of Boeing Boeing, and Wordsworth in relaxed splendour in the style of a Rhythm of Life dancer from Sweet Charity.

Travels CastThe show opens with a couple of terrific scenes: Henry, on the point of being executed, comes out of character and addresses the audience in a matter of fact style, and, with his delightfully upper crust accent, instantly creates a surreal atmosphere of quirky comedy. We then see the railway station transformed into a chapel for Henry’s mother’s funeral, which is where we meet Aunt Agatha, who sings a hilariously disrespectful song to the effect that life’s too short to waste time saying goodbye to the dead. It’s a really positive start to the show. But then something rather odd happens for the next quarter of an hour or so. It all seemed to lose energy, it got bogged down in exposition, and it felt a bit twee. I had thought that, as it is a rather bizarre story, one might expect the artificiality of the musical genre to work well with it. But it appeared that it was just going to become bland.

EnsembleFortunately, I was wrong! Before long there is a scene where the ensemble are sweetly dancing to a jolly song with cutesy lyrics but in the middle of the stage sits Aunt Augusta, the amount of her ransom money found wanting, getting physically assaulted by the scum of a lowlife who’s demanding the cash. That really uncomfortable juxtaposition between the musical matinee sweetness and the physical violence really pulled me up short. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as Women’s Institute-like as it first appeared? Indeed it isn’t. Once it really gets going, the show uses the musical format to excellent purpose, playing up the surreal and frequently questionable nature of the subject matter, like sugar sorbet icing on bitter aloes. The tunes are fun, the lyrics witty, and the performances are extremely good.

Jack ChissickAunt Augusta is played by the brilliantly no-nonsense Patricia Hodge, and you couldn’t find a more suitable pair of hands to play this unpredictable and exuberant character. She shows that she still has an excellent singing voice, great comic timing, and a terrific aura of dignity about her. In many ways she is perfect casting, as Augusta is meant to be in her 70s but acting much younger; well Miss Hodge isn’t quite in her 70s yet but certainly behaves like a flirtatious girl, which is just what you want from the character. A most enjoyable performance.

More ensembleBut at the heart of this production is the fantastic portrayal of Henry by Steven Pacey, an actor who never fails to delight. We’ve seen him as an avuncular Sir Politic Would-be in Volpone, a hilarious Peter in Relative Values (opposite Patricia Hodge) and a wonderfully gruff Sir Francis in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt. But I think his Henry is his crowning glory. You really get the sense of Henry’s journey from gardener to guerrilla (well, not quite that bad maybe), his changing relationship with Augusta, his awakening of the romantic side of life when he meets Tooley, and his natural heroic decency. He brings out all the comedy of the role without ever overplaying his hand, and you really feel that you know Henry deep down as a person. It’s a brilliant performance.

Steven PaceyThere are some very good supporting performances too: Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth is a larger-than-life 60s retro character, almost a parody of himself as a groovy lurve machine; he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Although we felt the characterisation belonged almost too much to a pre-political correctness age, his enormous sense of fun at the centre of the song and dance routines was irresistible. Haley Flaherty is a rather sweet and impressionable Tooley, surprising herself by her feelings for the older man; and Jack Chissick enjoys himself hugely in his dual roles as the vicious Colonel Hakim and the humorously ineffectual Mr Visconti. The ensemble give us loads of energy with their dance sequences and character vignettes, and the whole vibe is one where the cast come together to tell us a story of war criminals, art theft, violence and adultery, but keeping it light at the same time. We all enjoyed it enormously. It runs at the Minerva until 4th June. As Miss Hodge might say under other circumstances – such fun!

P. S. As a very minor aside, I’ve never seen such unconvincing onstage smoking. Nothing was ever lit, no little glow of heat ever appeared at the end of a cigarette, no smoke ever emerged. It may be healthier that way, but it did look a little silly!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

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.