Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: Alice Fowler
In a Swiss hotel room, great novelist Hugo Latymer (Simon Callow) embraces his dotage. His afternoon attire – stripy dressing gown and monogrammed slippers – tells us all we need to know about this vain and self-indulgent man. After 20 years, his marriage to the elegant Hilde – once his secretary, now his long-suffering spouse – has reached the stage where he can refer to her as a camel, a dromedary and an ass, all in a single conversation.
Something needs to change – and change it does, with the arrival of an old flame of Latymer’s from 40 years ago, an actress named Carlotta. Carlotta, played by Jane Asher, is everything that he is not. Less successful than Latymer – as he takes pleasure in pointing out – she has defied the years with injections and facelifts. Now, she has a favour to ask: permission to use his love letters to her in a book. When Latymer refuses, Carlotta tells him of another set of letters in her possession: letters that lay bare the great secret of his life.
Coward wrote the play in 1965 and took on the role of Latymer a year later, in his carefully planned acting swansong. It is hard not to view it as autobiographical, though Coward was also inspired by the biographies of writers Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm. The nature of Latymer’s secret is apparent early on, when he admires the broad shoulders of handsome young waiter Felix. Latymer has led a life of deception, of others and himself. History already tells us his protestations that ‘my private inclinations are not the business of my readers’ simply will not wash.
Callow and Asher make smart work of Coward’s barbed and witty dialogue. Callow convinces as the self-regarding Latymer, while Asher is harder to pin down. Just like Carlotta, she has aged with astonishing grace. But why is she revisiting her lover after so long? Is she seeking revenge for the way he treated her, or for the ‘callous cruelty and moral cowardice’ with which – in her view – he has led his life? Her real motive, she lets slip, may be irritation: which somehow has the ring of truth.
Jessica Turner plays Hilde, Latymer’s wife, a woman who understands far more than she initially lets on. Of the three main protagonists, it is Hilde who – her Teutonic manner loosened by alcohol – emerges with her dignity most intact.
Designer Simon Higlett’s set wonderfully recreates an elegant, high-windowed hotel room overlooking a moonlit lake. A clock ticks audibly, reminding us that this Theatre Royal Bath touring production is a period piece. Half a century after it was written, we may take some comfort that its heartfelt anguish and deceptions are, by and large, a part of history.
Runs until: 2 March 2019 | Image: Nobby Clark