By Noel Coward.
At the Noel Coward Theatre, London.
Booking to June 2, 2012.
It’s been 5 years since the Albery Theatre was renamed the Noel Coward but this is the first time we’ve been able to see a Coward play on its stage.
And what a great start. This production of Coward’s eternal comedy of (bad) manners is scintillating. Lindsay Duncan’s Judith Bliss follows Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Maria Aitken into the West End and she surpasses them all. She has form here of course, having won an Olivier and a Tony for a perfect Private Lives a decade ago.
This production plays up the bohemian aspect of the wretched Bliss family and Bunny Christie’s beautifully detailed set, a temple of grey modernism, makes the mad house look like a cross between an art gallery and a garage. Christie’s costumes are also stunning. Duncan’s billowing golden train for her evening wear reminds us that Judith is never really off stage. As she so rightly puts it, in a rare moment of reflection, “Oh he’s not in love with me he’s in love with my celebrated actressy glamour”.
Howard Davies, direction is inspired because he slows it all down. This is daring but it reminds us that it’s a comedy of manners, not a camp farce. Through some exquisite detailing in the ensemble he draws out the vulnerability of the characters and the depth that is there is Coward’s writing, if only people looked. Lazy productions resort to presenting these characters as just brittle and arch, Davies knows better.
The story of the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend at their country house, is structurally perfect. It is amazing to think that it was written in just three days when he was aged 24. The seductiveness of the wit owes much to that youthful exuberance and is partly why it never really dates. It has great energy.
With slicked back hair and round glasses Jeremy Northam makes a welcome return to the West End stage but now, alas, in a character part. As the ‘diplomatist’ Richard Grantham he expertly slides from the “exquisitely non committal” to a quivering wreck desperate for escape. Along the way he displays exquisite comic timing. Olivia Colman manages to make Myra Arundel (“who uses sex like a shrimping net”) sympathetic and Jenny Galloway is solid in every respect as the housekeeper, whose patience is severely tried and barges out of the kitchen barking “what’s it now”. “Prepare various rooms” is one of Judith’s classic requests. As the “children” Freddie Fox is the epitome of blond, floppy haired preciousness as Simon and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (now there’s a name for Coward) is glorious as the daughter, Sorrel. She perfectly embodies the bright, gawky 19 year old, flitting between boldness and skittishness.
Two scenes stand out, the tea scene where they forget completely to serve the guests and the perfect ending, where in their self-absorbed quarrelling, they don’t even notice as their guests furtively make for the front door.
Judith’s mantra “the only thing is to keep calm” is of course a lie. In this “featherbed of false emotion” as Myra calls it, she is manipulating every scene and every one. Duncan does it all with such panache you forgive the machinations. You also see where Albee might have got his idea for the ‘Get the Guests’ game in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or where Jennifer Saunders might have found inspiration for Edina in Absolutely Fabulous. It is comic gold.