Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Martin Parr
Reviewer: Daniel Perks
In a decade on the brink of change, a familial unit is found caught between worlds. The matriarchs of the Ebony household, Agnes Ebony (Polly Adams) and Violet Chilham (Joanna David), take a conservative view of life – women should not be free to travel without spouses on trains, or to dine with men when their husbands remain at home or work. Even the prospect of a woman and a man being friends is somewhat lost on proper, dithering husband Paul (Tim Chipping). Wife and protagonist Janet (Zoë Waites), however, is a pioneer of her time, a younger outspoken woman who doesn’t bow down to the archaic notions of propriety, even within her married upper-class family. So when she returns from Paris having been a victim of a terrible train crash, she is less than impressed when the primary concern from the family is not for her wellbeing, but whether she is having illicit relations with old friend Peter Chelsworth (Richard Dempsey) who was with her on the train during the ordeal. Spurned, shocked and subsequently scheming, she decides to play up to suspicions and with her childhood friend lead the Ebony family on a lascivious dance.
A three-act play by one of Britain’s most successful 20th Century playwrights, Home Chat receives it first UK production in almost 90 years at the Finborough Theatre and feels like it hasn’t aged at all. Director Martin Parr stays true to the period with pinpoint accuracy, a risky manoeuvre in productions by such prolific playwrights but one that pays off in this instance. As with all of Finborough Theatre’s works of late, there is a respect for the original writer and a dedication to honour the text that is refreshing to witness on stage. With some well-conceived pieces of set, Rebecca Brower gives a feeling of space in a confined environment; Janet (Waites) in particular takes full advantage as she sets her plans in motion.
A strong cast backs up the leading lady here, who sets the bar high with her witty, outlandish and forward-thinking performance. Coward’s script builds in much room for interpretation for Waites, who despite being cunning and devilish in her delivery is ultimately throwing a grown-up tantrum based on the disbelief that her family cares little for her health and more for their brand and reputation. Until she is swept off her feet by Major Stone (Philip Correia), dashing and debonair, she remains petulant with no logical reasoning. The Major gives her the attention and the adult interaction she secretly desires.
Aside from Waites, strong performances emerge from mother Violet (David) and mother-in-law Agnes (Adams), who epitomise the tradition of a Victorian generation, stern and dour yet easily flustered. Both seasoned performers, David and Adams have no trouble in maintaining a magnetic performance while politely aiming to point score off the failings of each’s offspring, a battle of wits with more sophistication than the younger generation. When juxtaposed with the fluttering Mavis Wittersham (Clare Lawrence Moody), who hovers around Paul (Chipping) like a well-mannered moth to an immovable flame, the effect is accentuated even further.
Home Chat could easily be a relic of its time, an aged reflection in forgotten society. But Coward’s writing is timeless, choosing to focus on the emotional situation over the time period. Parr’s production does the same; it stays true to its roots but places the concept above all, a concept that is well realised by those on stage.
Runs until 24 September 2016 | Image: Bob Workman