Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
What an appropriate choice to open this year’s Chichester Festival programme. A seemingly light concoction but one which beneath the surface is packed full of all the ‘stuff’ of theatre from the pressures of performance, the problems of admirers, the issues of backing and management to the complicated relationships that grow up around the actor and the supporting team. And what a splendidly professional production to show us punters how it should be done. Sean Foley’s take on one of Noel Coward’s best-known plays certainly fits the bill.
Written in 1942 but with no hint of wartime hanging over it, Coward’s reputedly semi-autobiographical work introduces the world of Garry Essendine, played with suitable aplomb by Rufus Hound. An established star of light theatre and on the verge of a tour to Africa, Essendine is portrayed sparkling at the centre of his particular firmament which contains what would be known today as his ‘people’ and his adoring fans. The first half explores the relationships that have developed between the members of this disparate group, but in the second part his backer’s wife Joanna, the siren-like Lucy Briggs-Owen, makes an appearance and the play takes a subtle turn as the audience begins to realise, gradually at first but then rather more rudely, what effect she is having on this tight knit community.
Hound is splendid. On stage for most of the performance and moving seamlessly between over-acting and “normal” behaviour he dominates proceedings in true thespian style. He is supported by a strong cast and there are standout performances from Katherine Kingsley who plays Essendine’s realistic ex-wife Liz, and Tracy-Ann Oberman who gives an enigmatic portrayal of trusty secretary Monica.
It is very much a play of two halves. Coward’s witty and waspish script dominates the first half but the second includes far more elements of slapstick and pure farce. Director Sean Foley manages to combine all these elements together and he maintains the essential speed and tightness that the script demands throughout the performance. He also introduces some delightful quirky themes such as the synchronisation of movements and watch out for matching luggage. He is aided in all this by the customary magnificent Chichester set from designer Alice Power and he uses it cleverly through the play so that it changes from stunning visual introduction to a vehicle for farcical goings-on later in the piece.
There is a bit too much shouting in the first half and it slows a little towards the interval. But returning refreshed the audience is treated to a change in pace and a crescendo to the frantic denouement, capped by a suitably witty and accomplished finale from ‘Sail Away’.
Runs until 12 May 2018 | Image: Johan Persson