Writer and Director: Nick Hutchinson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Christmas is almost upon us and many will be spending it in the traditional manner – eating excessively before slumping in front of the television to watch the Queen’s speech and a festive (meaning catastrophic) episode of Eastenders. Imagine though that you could spend the day in another way, maybe even in another era, and high on the list would surely be a visit to Noel Coward’s Belgravia flat in the 1940s. Imagine the elegance of his Christmas soiree – glamorous company, plenty of cocktails, lively songs and more witty repartee than a hundred repeats of Morecambeand Wise.
Given that Dr Who is too busy on 25 December fighting alien threats to take you there and time travel apparently being impossible, the St James’s Theatre has tried to create Coward’s flat on their tiny studio stage, producing one of the more melancholic Christmas events in London. It is a strange concept; Noel Coward is at home trying to write Blithe Spirit but he is constantly distracted by the falling bombs and thoughts of other difficult Christmases. He evokes his famous medium Madame Arcati and susceptible maid Edith who channel the experiences of others and become them to give insight into various accounts of the festive period from literature and the two World Wars, combining Coward’s own works with other testimony, poetry and songs.
The trouble with Noel Coward’s Christmas Spirits is that it doesn’t entirely come together as a whole, and it is not clear why Coward is so downcast. While the material here is quite broad-ranging, it presents him as a lonely and angry man. Stefan Bednarczyk doesn’t quite ring true as the man himself; imagine two impersonations of Noel Coward with Rex Harrison doing the singing and Laurence Olivier the acting – both are good, but not quite Coward. All the individual pieces work nicely, the readings are performed with depth and meaning, while the singing is at times enchanting, especially Charlotte Wakefield’s renditions of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Keep The Homes Fires Burning. The bits that are pure Coward are also a high point – his own songs and letters get the biggest laughs but it only makes you wish for more.
There is not much of a narrative link running through this, just a rummage through some literary and musical expressions of Christmas-time loosely held together by the idea of inspiring Noel to keep writing songs and plays to warm a war-weary nation. Thankfully the glum first act gives way to a slightly more upbeat second, and while it may not be the witty Christmas celebration you hoped to have with Noel, take this at face value, enjoy the individual performances (especially the songs) and don’t worry about the story. This is a random but interesting wander through some Christmas-based writing, but one lacking enough Coward merriment to sustain it.
Runs Until: 23 December 2014 | Photo: Mark Douet