Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Trevor Nunn
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The year is 1951, and this is clearly established by newsreel clips (mostly genuine, but with a few additions) at the beginning of this production and between scenes. We see the Korean War, rationing, political debate and, most clearly, we see a world that is changing rapidly and irrevocably. This could have been interpreted as a routine, typically frothy Noel Coward comedy but, by emphasising the play’s themes of class inequality and social change, director Trevor Nunn has made it far more interesting and, in so doing, he has not sacrificed any of the humour.
A widowed countess awaits in her palatial home for the return of her only son with his bride-to-be, a Hollywood film star, who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid. The maid insists that she has to leave the house because of the embarrassment that her lowly social status would cause, but the Countess cannot accept this, realising that she is devoted to the maid who has become her closest friend. Together with the butler, the pair devise a plot whereby the maid’s social status will be elevated. It becomes apparent that these three, countess, maid and butler are, in effect, a close-knit family whose affection towards each other is much stronger than the class system that divides them. The 1951 setting is specific, but the message is that it matters more who people are than what pigeon hole they have been placed in and this resonates just as strongly today.
At first sight, Patricia Hodge as the Countess seems like typecasting, but, in fact, she develops the character to become much more than just a class stereotype. Her timing and delivery of Coward’s witticisms are immaculate, particularly in early banter with Steven Pacey, playing her nephew. But this is a countess who, although outwardly snobbish, controlling and scheming, has great warmth, making it wholly believable when she confesses to being torn between her instincts and her sense of reason when it comes to class issues.
Caroline Quentin is also excellent in the more broadly comic rôle of the maid, becoming ever more uncomfortable as she feigns her new social status. Rory Bremner, sounding rather like his famous impersonation of John Major, is a constant delight playing the butler, a man who can talk expertly on social and political issues yet professes that, like most people, he “knows nothing and just pretends to know a great deal”; most intriguing are the contradictions in this character’s ideals – he claims that being conservative does not mean having to be Conservative (or perhaps he means it the other way round) and, despite being lower class himself, he is a firm disbeliever in social equality. The nephew comments that he and the Countess would make perfect partners, except of course that they were prevented by birth from ever becoming so.
The action all takes place in the library of a country house, which is realised by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s very grand set. Coward’s trademark one-liners appear in abundance and, in a play that is about change, he takes some delightful swipes at changes in the theatre – “a comedy of manners becomes obsolete when there are no longer any manners”. Many bright directorial touches add to the laughter as the show bubbles throughout. Overall, this is a superior production of Coward’s play and it is difficult to imagine it being staged much better.