Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 25 October, 2000

Fallen Angels has itself slipped somewhat from the ranks of Noël Coward's best-known plays; it is more than thirty years since its last West End production. Its portrayal of two middle-class wives getting drunk together as they await a sudden visit from a mutual old French flame has lost virtually all of its outrage value in the 75 years since it was unveiled; however, Michael Rudman's delightful production is not at all dated, let alone declined into the vale of years of former shockers.

Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour as Julia and Jane have a wonderful rapport from the first. I think part of the secret is that for much of the time their apprehension about the arrival of the smouldering Maurice Duclos is treated playfully; de la Tour, in particular, gives the prospect of such a reunion the air of a forbidden adventure one she doesn't want to embark on, but which is awfully enticing all the same. Kendal is a little more composed, at least until that fateful first martini.

The second act of Rudman's production contains some of the most wonderful comic-drunk acting it has ever been my pleasure to see. Even the twosome's metabolisms are acted differently: de la Tour's Jane grows steadily more and more inebriated, whilst Kendal's Julia maintains a kind of equilibrium until she reaches her take-off point, at which she soars up to join her best friend in the stratosphere of smashedness. It is not the exuberant physical business itself which is such a glory, although that is marvellously executed (de la Tour grappling with a non-existent champagne glass, for example, or Kendal garrotting herself with a telephone cord), but the fact that throughout these proceedings the pair are fighting a deliciously losing battle to retain their dignity. The joy continues into the third-act morning after, as Julia's shrieks of apprehension keep deafening herself and Jane's image in a compact mirror causes her almost literally to leap back in terror.

Coward's 1958 revision of the play greatly expanded the role of Saunders the maid, who has evidently seen, been and learnt everything in existence while retaining a Jeevesian composure as she serves. Tilly Tremayne's performance adds superbly to the gaiety of the evening. It is not so much that the three women keep stealing the scene from each other as that the focus is passed fleetly and dextrously between them as the trio whizz up the theatrical playing field to score a resounding goal.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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