Tonight at 8.30 - Noel Coward as you've never seen him before
11 Jul 2014
To celebrate 21 years of exuberant theatrical existence, the English Touring Theatre made an unusual call: it would perform 21 plays throughout the year – and Tonight at 8.30’s Thursday show took care of three of these with a rollercoaster of tragedy, satire and razor sharp wit.
Scheduled for performance on three consecutive nights, each night has three of these one-act wonders and Thursday saw We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart and Red Peppers transcend the view of a once familiar theatrical legend and shed light on a much darker deeper personality than Private Lives ever let on.
This came about when company director Rachel Tackley was faced with so many suggestions it made her head spin. 'We were overflowing with ideas about creating a play to be written in 21 hours, 21 days, 21 weeks, touring it to 21 theatres across the country maybe with 21 performers' It was clearly getting out of hand when she turned to the company patron, Sir Ian McKellen. He nailed it in style, Why don’t you just do 21 plays?'
But Tonight at 8.30 is a very different sequence to that of his popular plays.
Director Blanche McIntyre admits she has only had one crack at Coward’s work when she directed the middle act of Private Lives at Drama School. 'The actress who was playing Amanda got so carried away that she slapped Elyot so hard she burst his eardrum'. But she admits that the play, recently revived with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, does really run with the Coward brand: elegant, poised, superficial.
Not so the plays performed last night. Only the first, We Were Dancing brings the familiar Coward satire to bear on the world of relationships.
Set on the veranda of the country club at Samolo, a couple are suddenly electrified by lust and are propelled in a dance about the stage.
When her husband arrives, he’s introduced to the new lover/dancer – even though his wife doesn’t know the name of her new passion. Dazzled by lust and carried away with each other, the couple announce they will run away together – and in true Noel Coward style demand that the husband and his appalled sister (played wonderfully by Amy Cudden), take it all in a civilized way.
Needless to say when dawn sheds the light of reality on their plans, the whole scheme seems distinctly unappealing. A brilliant witty play with cutting repartee.
What a change of tone in The Astonished Heart which followed. A family await the death of a dear husband , and the arrival of his lover played brilliantly by a captivating Shereen Martin. A flashback sequence of scenes reveals the agony of betrayal, obsession and suicide that has lead to this tragic circumstance. Although predictable in form, this play showcases an unfamiliar Coward. This is a raw passionate play, - in the words of the Director - ‘from the gut”. The audience were spellbound and horrified by the emotional destruction they saw before them , Noel Coward no longer merely entertaining with a ‘comedy of manners’. In this play he was clearly trying to get under the skin of the most desperate of feelings.
The evening closed with a third play about the backstage maliciousness of a vaudeville show, Red Peppers. Rows, low abuse, nastiness - it all seemed horribly convincing and reminds us that Coward more or less affected his upper class persona and made his way up in the theatre from the very bottom. Amy Cudden sparkles as the volcanic and hilarious Mrs. Pepper, the female half of the soft shoe shuffling duo. Funny and uplifting, it did send the audience out with a spring and slide in their step.