Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
English Touring Theatre has revived a series of nine one-act plays by Noël Coward which have not been performed in the UK since 1936. The three plays performed on this opening night seem to be, whether intentional or not, a triptych about the class system. It’s certainly a fascinating evening which shows a side of Coward that is almost shocking, and will perhaps make you re-evaluate how he fits into the history of English theatre.
Ways and Meansis quintessential Coward: a soufflé-light concoction set among the feckless upper classes. Stella and Toby Cartwright (Kirsty Besterman and Gyuri Sarossy) are the charming, yet impecunious, couple who seems to survive almost exclusively through the kindness of their wealthy friends. But they’ve outstayed their welcome at the French villa of Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Amy Cudden), are horrendously in debt and may not even have the fare to make it to the next sponging station in Venice. A chance encounter with a criminal chauffeur whose sexual morality leaves a lot to be desired – perhaps a theatrical cousin of Joe Orton’s Mr Sloane – presents them with a neat solution. Besterman and Sarossy have a genuine comic rapport which does more than justice to the sparkling dialogue, and even though they’re pretty terrible people, the actors somehow manage to make them quite loveable; they come across almost like a pair of naughty children devoid of any genuine malice.
Fumed Oakis described as an “unpleasant comedy”, and that statement is certainly 50% correct. A lower-middle-class family comprises a man, Henry Gow (Peter Singh), his shrewish wife Doris (Olivia Pulet), her mother (Amy Cudden) and the Gows’ young daughter Elsie (Besterman). During its two scenes Gow tells the rest of his family exactly what the thinks of them. He rails against his wife who he believes ruined his life by getting pregnant, his “horrid” daughter and his “horrid old bitch” of a mother-in-law. He actually hits the ageing woman and tells her she’s “begging for another sock in the jaw”. He believes his family, or at least the women in it, to be “a bad lot: mean, cold and respectable”. With Gow’s misogyny, his emotional and physical violence, his railing against conventional manners, he’s very much a prototypical Angry Young Man a couple of decades before John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter. It’s not dated well – partly because domestic violence against the elderly is not considered as funny as it might once have been. Singh certainly makes Gow watchable, but this part of the evening is not a success. Some genuinely funny lines might have taken the sting out of it, but Coward is so intent on the female characters being put in their place he seems to have forgotten to do it with any real wit.
Still Lifecontrasts the love-lives of the respectable middle-classes with the freer, easier, and happier working classes. Laura Jesson (Shereen Martin) is a contentedly married woman embarking on an affair with a married doctor (Sarossy) who she first meets at a train station’s cafe. It’s never consummated, partly because they both recognise that they are “nice people who have to go on being nice”. Meanwhile the cafe’s workers just get on with their dalliances without the need to analyse their affairs rights and wrongs. It’s a lovely piece, funny and affecting, and the farewell scene – ruined for the lovers by Laura’s oblivious friend Mildred (Poulet) – is quietly heart breaking.
English Touring Theatre Production Photo ¦ Runs at Theatre Royal Brighton until Sat 19th July 2014