Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Tom Littler
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The Jermyn Street Theatre has set itself an ambitious task – staging a full schedule of Noël Coward’s group of one-act plays Tonight at 8.30. In addition to producing these nine smart shows, it is also staging three pieces of new writing – Tomorrow at Noon. These are brand new and have been chosen as a modern response to Coward’s 1930’s creations. Playing in repertory, each group of three can be seen separately, or on weekend days through the run, all 9 original plays are performed.
Mixing up the two most well-known of the whole Tonight at 8.30cycle with one that has (according to the programme) never been given a proper showing in the UK since 1936 was a super move. We have novelty, and familiarity, some music, a huge pile of comedy and pathos. While the two other groups in this production run are well done as well, this trip is the pick of the bunch. A full-blooded ensemble piece to begin with, then a tightly focused look at marriage and stress through the medium of a music-hall act, and then the classic Still Life about love that could be.
Star Chamber starts us off and gives everyone in the cast an opportunity to indulge in a completely separate character. It’s a send-up of actors and theatrical types – something we can trust Coward to write perfectly. These nine are supposed to be having a committee meeting to decide funding for a new wing of a charity house they support – but between “hello dahling”s, each bravely trying to scrape attention for themselves and a pooch that needs to be cared for there’s little time for the poor Mr. Farmer the secretary to progress the thing. Each of the cast gives an excellent performance, squabbling and talking over, above and around each other but never letting the audience get confused.
Continuing the theatrical theme, this time a study of the pressure a declining music hall act can bring to its married performers. Lily and George have been doing their song-and-dance act for decades and so have been bickering over the act for just as long. They argue and get frustrated, but Coward’s charm in this piece is to show a portrait of a couple ready to stand back to back and fight the world, even as it slowly destroys them. Jeremy Rose and Rosemary Ashe as the Red Peppers play off each other very well. Shifting from their comic variety performance routines to the backstage struggles, we’re with them every step of the way. Lily and George seem like an objectionable pair, but with Rose and Ashe playing them we’re fully sympathetic.
Still Life is a wonderful piece of writing. A classic, and the inspiration for the film Brief Encounter it tells us the story of three hopeful romantic entanglements. The staff of Milford Junction train station have their own complex lives going on – and watching the flirtations and frustrations is worth the time itself. Adding in the chance meeting and subsequent affair of Laura and Alec, two passengers going in different directions, brings a spark to the tea room. Told over the course of several months, it’s a powerful look at what happens when duty, rank, and morality come up against love. Still Life can be seen as a series of brief vignettes following deeply personal stories that won’t impact on the bigger picture, but change the lives of those involved.
Nick Waring and Miranda Foster take on the heavy dramatic lifting (as they do with the other big drama in the cycle An Astonished Heart in the Nuclear Families section) as the two illicit lovers. Wonderful performances from both – the heartbreak and pain at what they’re doing is palpable. Coward’s writing here is word-perfect, delivering ideas on fidelity, love (and lung diseases) that cut through all the additives and strike a note of emotional purity it’s hard to see elsewhere.
With the “new” work of Star Chamber and the other classics, this is a highlight of the whole run. Music, comedy, drama and excellent, impactful performances from all the cast. Through the whole three sections of this Tonight at 8.30 group there’s a massive array of characters in motion. It’s testament to Coward’s capabilities as a writer, Tom Littler as director and the whole cast here that each one of them is memorable, distinct and remarkable. These three show the most variety and promise by far.
Runs until 10 May 2018 | Image: Robert Workmam