Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Jack Thorpe-Baker
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Go through the doors of the Union Theatre in Southwark and you are transported back to 40s London and the Ace of Clubs, a seedy Soho nightclub filled with small-time crooks and servicemen on leave. Take your seat at one of the tables and peer across the smoky room as the curtain rises on the cabaret performance. There’s dancing girls and a lively compere, all building up to singing starlet Pinkie Leroy who is interrupted mid-song by a scuffle in the audience and a shot that brings the curtain down.
This little known Noël Coward musical has been rarely seen since its first professional staging in 1950 which, given its fairly thin plot and shortage of witty dialogue, may have seemed quite dated after the Second World War. Now, however, there is a huge nostalgia for that period so in the Union’s attractive production there’s a chance to look more kindly on this work. The decision to stage it in this way, as if the audience were at the Ace of Clubs, is a clever one and the concept is nicely carried all the way through to the final bows. Merging some of the offstage action into the room also works very well, as the stage itself is fairly small so this offers a more immersive experience and almost constant visibility for most of the actors.
The scenes flow as smoothly as club host Felix Felton (a charismatic Michael Hobbs) would wish and nicely merges the cabaret performances of the Ace of Clubs regular show with the individual dramas of love, life and stolen jewels behind the scenes. The Chorus probably has the most fun lightening the mood with some cheeky routines, and the four female rôles of The Ace of Clubs Girls are full of character. The principal performances are very likeable although not particularly well-rounded. Emma Harris is a very sweet Pinkie and her solos are full of expression, but the love affair with sailor Harry Hornby, played by Gary Wood, lacked chemistry and his voice was often lost in the music. Lucy May Barker warrants special mention as Baby Belgrave delivering several different song styles and standing out in the group scenes.
The acting may sometimes verge on the edge of being hammy but as an overall experience this production is enjoyable. It may not stand alongside much-loved Coward plays like Private Lives or Blithe Spirit, but Ace of Clubs was worth reviving, particularly in this pseudo-nightclub setting. Modern London is so used to the realistic theatre that swept away Coward’s drawing room comedies 60 years ago that it’s refreshing to see a light tale innovatively staged. In spite of its flaws this revival is really rather charming.
Photo: Ray Tan | Runs until 31st May